Five Years Ago… “Aren’t you coming along, lass?

” Ginger looked up from what she was writing and saw Puck in the doorway of her room. He didn’t look so good: a tad scruffier than usual with purplish shadows beneath his blue eyes that spoke too loudly of a lack of sleep and a serious five-o’-clock shadow. Under ordinary circumstances, she would have scolded him for looking so unkempt. girlfriend now. He was no longer her responsibility. “You guys go on without me,” she said quietly. Puck worked his mouth and tried to say something, tried to protest. But no words would come. He sighed, nodded, and just walked away. “Shut the door behind you, please,” Ginger called back without looking his way. She heard the faint click of the shutting door, the sounds of footsteps and voices just outside. But they faded away and, when they were gone, Ginger rested her weary head on arms folded on the desk before her. And the young woman who prided herself on never crying actually did the unthinkable. She wept - and she wept for her heart was broken. She wept for a friendship that should have grown into love - only, some other woman - no, some other whore, some strumpet - stepped in and broke everything she loved and held dear about her best friend. Some bitch who openly spoke against her to anyone who would listen. Argie, Ditas, Joey, and Kei had taken her side. They told her she was the better woman for not stooping down to Lucille Natividad’s level, for not resorting to slander, for not being mean and petty. For being the sort of woman that she was, that she’d grown up to be: educated, polished, and with more class than Lucille would ever have. But their kind words seemed to roll off Ginger like water off a duck’s back. For all the good things about her, Lucille had the one thing - the one person - she wanted the most. Sighing, she again applied pen to paper and wrote out how she felt. 2 Puck, however, had a

I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do. All that’s left of me is emptiness, Is silence, is desolation, Is you. Is what I feel madness, Is this what they call grief? All I can feel is the coldness, The ache that gnaws my heart At losing you. They say, “Weep not.” They say, “Fret not.” But what the hell do they know? What the hell do they care? Why the hell should they care? I feel a little lost, I feel so disoriented, I don’t know where to go, I don’t know what to do… How about you? If I told you I was okay, It would be a lie. I’d rather not face you, I don’t want to see what I’ve lost. And so…goodbye. Ginger drew a deep breath as she took the small letter-opener from the pencil holder. She stayed calm as she sank the sharp blade into the flesh of her arm and drew blood. +++ “You’re lucky Puck decided to go back for you,” Argie said rather sternly. “I wish he hadn’t,” Ginger murmured, not caring to face her blond bandmate. Instead, her eyes focused on her bandaged left arm. She’d only been able to cut deep enough to scratch and bleed just a bit. Puck stopped her from going through with it.

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“Ginge, listen to me.” Argie sat down at the foot of the bed, his green eyes worried. ”Puck cares about you. That tarty little pop-starlet is just stringing him along, thinking she’ll end up marrying him - “ “Stop!” Ginger shouted, tears running down her face. ”Just stop, Argie. Don’t tell me what else she thinks. She can have him. I don’t care.” “You’re a lousy liar, woman.” Ginger looked up balefully, but managed the faintest shadow of a smile. ”That’s God’s own truth,” she said in agreement. “I promise you now as both your bandmate and one of your oldest friends: that whore won’t make it to the damned altar with our Puck.” Argie reached out and took her hands in his. ”It’ll take a bit, you might end up dating someone else while you’re waiting, but you’re our best bet for the future Viscountess Henstridge. Heck, his grandmother loves you more than she loves him!” Ginger smiled sadly at that memory, that summer when Puck dragged them all off to Scotland to visit his paternal grandparents at Holydean. Duchess Holydean, Puck’s grandmother, set Ginger head and shoulders above all other women who came anywhere near her grandson. So much, in fact, that the Duchess sent Ginger home with her own tartan set - something only done for women who married into their clan. “Gran’s just too optimistic,” she said softly. “Gran loves you - and, seeing how Puck’s mum is dead - she’ll fight tooth and claw for you.” “Where’s Puck?” Argie pointed to the window. ”Look out there,” he said. He’d climbed up a tree just outside her window. He seemed lost in thought as he read from a slip of paper in his hands. “He took the poem you were writing,” Argie quietly informed Ginger. ”And he was more than a little belligerent while the hotel doctor was wrapping your arm.” “He’s mad at me, then, for spoiling his fun.” “He’s mad at himself for being a complete and utter prick, my dear.”

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Ginger said nothing and crawled back into bed. She sighed deeply and, before she closed her eyes, told Argie, “Tell him I’m just going to be with you guys till the end of the tour.” “What?!” “Tell him…” She squeezed her eyes shut. ”Tell him to look for another bassist. I don’t want anything to do with him for the time being.” “But, Ginger ~ !” “Argie, please: just tell him.” “Well…” Reluctantly, Argie nodded and left the room. Once he’d gone, Ginger got out of bed and went back to the window to look at her best friend. “I’d rather not face you,” she murmured to herself. ”I don’t want to see what I’ve lost.” A single tear rolled down her cheek as he looked up and turned her way. ”And so…” The stricken look on his face broke her heart, but she had to be strong. For now, all she could do was walk away from this, to walk away from him. “And so… Goodbye.”

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Amuse-Bouche Those hours between the noon rush and the closing hour discount madness were Ginger’s favorite time of the day. While no less busy, these hours were less hectic, giving her more time to think even as she kneaded dough for the evening stock of bread or frosted cakes or added the finishing touches to any number of delicate desserts or chocolate confections. As she deftly piped delicate rosettes of rose-flavored creme patisserie onto some dark chocolate eclairs, she hummed happily to herself. Her staff and any customers nearby recognized the song as one from the band Reckless Imprudence, one from a couple years back that was now hailed as a new classic. It was a sweet song and those who came to the shop thought she hummed the song because it was her favorite. That, however, was only part of the truth. As to the real reason why Ginger hummed or sang it all the time, only those closest to her knew. If I could be with you, If I could stop the time, If I could spend forever and six days with you, I would and I will. So kiss me now, So hold me close, We may not have forever, We may not have it just yet, But at least we have tonight. She added a candied rose petal to the center of each creamy rosette. With that done, she carefully slid the tray into the display case.

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She surveyed the cases in the shop. With their gilded edges, they looked so much like treasure boxes holding a wealth of sweet or savory delights. Dark chocolate éclairs topped and filled with rose cream, pale pink lychee macarons topped with a nib of crystallized ginger, milk chocolate bonbons infused with French lavender, sampaguita-infused white chocolate mendiants topped with cashews and pili nuts and dried mango and papaya – and these were but the tip of the sumptuous iceberg people knew as La Reinette, the cafe-patisserie Ginger owned along with Maison ReineClaude, the bistro next door. It satisfied Ginger Algarme to no end to see even the most dietconscious of women succumb to her tempting delights. One would start out by ordering a single macaron, pleading moderation or compliance to a strict regimen. Then it would progress to the purchase of a truffle or two. Then a pastry. Then a cake. And that pretty much spelled the end of even the most dedicated dieters. Ginger opened the bakery some five years before, claiming that working with pastry and chocolate was less stressful than either copy-writing or performing live. It was a job that suited her just fine: she lost the haggard, weary look she sported half a decade before. Her normally gruff demeanor softened somewhat; the smile that once had a bitter cast to it was infinitely sweetened – as if all the sugar-work sweetened the baker’s personality. However, one thing that all her baking, cooking, and chocolate-making could never seem to take away was the gripping loneliness she felt at being so far away from the work she really loved and from her very best friends – friends who had grown to practically become part of her family over the passage of time. It was fortunate, therefore, that she’d installed Skype on the tablet she mounted on one wall of the restaurant kitchen. Any one of the boys would check in on her from time to time, keeping her posted on where they were and what they were doing. Being the multitasker that she was, she never minded the intrusions; in fact, she reveled in them as she was made to feel as if she’d never left them at all. This particular afternoon, a very familiar rosy-cheeked face popped into the screen. 7

“Ginger ma girl,” the young man called, blue eyes glinting. “Hi, Puck,” Ginger greeted him warmly, but not lifting her eyes from the mango she was presently chopping up. ”How’s Hong Kong?” “‘Tis fun enough,” Puck Henstridge replied in his Scots accent. He pouted a little. ”Not the same without you, though.” “Puck, it’s been five years. You ought to be used to it by now.” “What are ye baking?” Puck asked, obviously trying the change the subject. “Fresh mango cookies,” Ginger replied, putting the mango chunks in a bowl. ”Last of the season. You and the boys will be home in about a week; I’ll save you a few batches.” She looked up at the screen, studying her best friend’s face. ”Shouldn’t you be at rehearsal?” “We’re taking a break,” Puck informed her. Behind him, a tall blond with beautifully chiseled features came up and handed him a paper cup of what appeared to be tea. ”Say hullo to Ginger, Argie.” “Hola, Ginge!” the blond greeted her heartily. ”Did I hear you right? You’re baking mango cookies? I love those!” “I know that too well!” Ginger remarked dryly. Argie – Argyll Spencer – had a notorious craving for mangoes and anything made with them. ”Your wife told me to save you at least three dozen before you guys left.” “Oi, why does Argie get three dozen while me and the lads only get a few pieces each!” Puck protested. “Because his wife makes sure to buy the lot before anyone else does,” Ginger replied with a laugh as she began mixing the dough. Nearby, an assistant was lining cookie sheets with baking parchment. He waved hello to the boys as he worked. ”Howdy, Sir Puck!” he said by way of greeting. ”Hey, Sir Argie.” “Hi, Jack,” the boys greeted him. “What are you boys drinking?” Ginger asked as Jack handed her a steaming mug filled from a nearby tea urn. “Pu-Erh,” Argie replied. He pointed to the cup in Puck’s hand. ”Though the front man here’s sipping soup. He skipped lunch.” Puck made a face and elbowed his friend to shut up. Ginger, however, threw him a sharp look. 8

“Robin Andrew Mackenzie Henstridge!” she exclaimed in dismay. “I did not skip lunch!” Puck protested. ”I took Lucille out to Maxim’s!” “Yeah and he couldn’t eat anything because all she did was complain!” Argie shot back. Ginger held up a hand to quell them both. just too much even for her. “Just finish that soup, okay?” Ginger told Puck, eying him sternly. “I wish I had one o’ your buttery rowies t’ go with it,” Puck grumbled between sips. “You’ll have all the butteries you want when you come home,” she assured him. ”Argie, you look after him.” Argie looked as if he was about to protest, but the grim set of Ginger’s lips made him back off and meekly agree. He excused himself and went to join the others on the far side of the room. “I’d tell you to break up with that woman, but you won’t take that kindly,” Ginger said quietly when Argie had gone. ”You don’t scold me about my boyfriend, after all.” Puck managed a small smile at that. ”Thank you,” he replied simply. “No problem, Sugar-Cookie.” Playfully, Puck kissed the screen. He and Ginger both laughed as he tried to wipe off the lip-print. “We miss ye, Ginger me girl,” he reminded her. “You miss my cooking,” Ginger remarked dryly. “Nae, we miss ye - yer cookin’s just incidental. But, aye: a proper tray o’ that rose and cream thing ye’ve a knack for makin’ won’t go amiss.” He winked slyly at her. ”Thanks for the last tray you shipped o’er.” Ginger rolled her eyes at that even as she began dropping spoonfuls of dough onto her cookie sheets. ”Argie and Joey were ready to kill you for taking half the tray before they’d even told Kei about it!” she snorted. “Well, I’ll not take any more o’ yer time, Ginger me girl,” Puck said, wiggling his fingers in farewell. ”I miss you.” Lightly, Ginger kissed her screen. ”I miss you, too, Puck-Robin. See you in a few days.” 9 At the mention of Puck’s girlfriend’s name, she decided that she didn’t want to hear it. The drama was

+++ “How bad is it, doc?” Argie asked the attending physician worriedly. “Very bad,” the physician replied as he handed the x-ray results to Puck. ”Unless you can grab a spare bassist, you boys are going to have to cut this tour short.” “But we’ve got just this week to go!” Puck exclaimed in dismay. The second night of Reckless Imprudence’s Hong Kong stint was going so well, when their bassist, Colin Haygood, fell off the stage during the encore. The poor lad’s right wrist was shattered, but he’d manfully played on to the end. Unfortunately, the doctor now ruled that Colin would have to be sidelined. Puck, Argie, and the other guys looked at each other worriedly. “Are ye thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?” Puck asked them, an eyebrow raised speculatively. “She’s going to kill us,” Argie warned him. “Aye, but she did say she’d pop right back into action if we needed her.” “Only in an emergency, mate.” “Aye, so what do you think this situation is?” Argie slid a glance at the others. Both Joey Hao and Keiichi Ninomiya shrugged helplessly. He then turned to Puck, his face pale and somber. “I’ll call her first thing in the morning,” he advised their front man. ”Only: you’d better promise that she won’t fly off the handle at me. I’ve a wife and kids, mate.” Soberly, Puck shook his hand. ”Don’t worry,” he assured his friend. ”I’ll take care of it, just call her and get her back.” “I will.” The doctor motioned for Puck to follow him and the two left the room. When they’d gone, Argie smirked at the others and they jumped up at once. “That was a seriously crazy thing you did, mate,” Joey told him almost breathlessly. 10

“Yeah, but if it gets us Ginger back, it’d be wicked cool!” Keiichi declared. However, he narrowed his eyes at Argie. ”But, dude: did you really have to yank that amp cable around Colin’s ankle?” Argie shrugged. ”Mate, it was either that or actually push the lad off the stage!” +++ The news was on practically every news channel on television and online. Reckless Imprudence bassist Colin Haygood tripped on an onstage cable, fell, and fractured his wrist. It was the sort of news that Ginger both dreaded and – most secretly – longed for. She arrived at the shop early and set about whipping up a fresh batch of mango cookies. The previous day’s batches had been snapped up almost as soon as she put them in the display. However, as calm as she looked on the outside, she was as tense as a coiled spring. “Ginge, you there?” a voice asked from the tablet. Ginger looked up sharply and saw Argie’s worried face on the screen. ”Hey, Argie”, she greeted him. “Ginger, I want you to drop whatever it is you’re doing there in Manila and jet on over to Singapore – STAT,” Argie quietly told his friend. ”Though, if you’re making a batch of those fresh mango cookies of yours, bake ‘em quick and haul the whole batch over here.” “Argyll, I told you that I am not rejoining the band unless there’s an emergency. Why don’t you get some other bassist?” “Woman, this is an emergency!” Argie half-screamed in frustration. ”Our spare bassist fell off the stage and broke his arm. The doctor wants to send him home ASAP.” Worriedly, he added, “The doc said we’ll have to cut the tour short if we can’t get another bassist for the Singapore gig.” Sheepishly, he mentioned that it was rather too late for them to get anyone else. Ginger threw him a look of pure fury. ”Putang ina, Argie!” she swore. ”Why didn’t you say so in the first place? I’ll be there – and yes, I’ll bring the godsdamned cookies!” 11

The Soup “Who’s picking Ginger up at Changi?” Puck asked as he picked rather disinterestedly at his bacon and eggs that morning. Argie and Joey raised their hands. “Tickets?” “Took care of it around one today soon as we got in from Changi,” Keiichi replied, failing to stifle a yawn. ”Lucky for us the 8:40 was still underbooked.” “You put her on Economy?” Puck asked, eyebrows furrowing. Keiichi stared at him in consternation. ”Are you nuts?” he exclaimed. ”Of course not! She’s on business class.” Puck sighed in relief at that. ”Take it out o’ my personal account,” he told Keiichi. 12

“Can’t.” “What?” Keiichi jerked a thumb at Argie. ”His missus says bringing in a bassist – or, in this case, bringing one back - is a corporate expenditure,” he explained. “Ah, but – “ Argie threw his friend a stern glance. ”Relax, Puck!” he exclaimed. ”It’s all taken care of.” He eyed Puck critically, noting his unusual pallor and the dark circles beneath his eyes. ”Did you get any sleep at all?” When Puck shook his head, Argie sighed. ”If you’re not hungry, we’ll get someone to clear this. Go back to bed and try to get some sleep, mate.” Mutely, Puck nodded and excused himself from the table. When the door to his room closed behind him, Keiichi sighed and shook his head. “There’s something you should know, Argie,” he said as the blond guitarist made to leave the table. ”Sit down.” “What is it?” Argie asked. “Seeing how my room is next to Puck’s, I could hear him fighting with Lucille over the phone last night before we left for the airport,” Keiichi informed him. “And?” Joey asked, small eyes widening. “She’s not going to be here in Singapore,” Keiichi replied with a satisfied smirk. Both Argie and Joey stared at him in disbelief. “You’re not serious!” Argie hissed excitedly. “Putik, pare: I’m dead serious! She’s not going to be here! He’s sent her home to Manila!” Argie’s jaw dropped in shock. Joey grabbed Keiichi’s arm and choked out, “No shit? Really? That – that’s fucking great, pare!” “I know,” Keiichi smirked. Argie, however, gave a deep sigh and clasped his hands as if in prayer. Rolling his eyes heavenward, he declared, “Oh, Lord! If only Puck would just break things up with that little troublemaker already!” Joey snorted at that. ”In which case,” he said, “you’d better pray that Ginger breaks up with that scumbag Zaragoza ASAP.” 13

“Lord, you heard Joey!” Argie prayed almost desperately. ”If it be Your will, please let it be so!” As if on cue, considering how it was right in the middle of the table and no one was moving, the silver teapot suddenly tipped over to its side, rolled down to the floor, and fell with a loud clatter that brought Puck right out of his room. “What’s going on?” he demanded. The others could not answer him. All three stared at the fallen teapot, wondering just how – or even why - it fell when no one was touching it, when no one was jostling the table. “It’s a sign, pare,” Joey gasped. Argie fervently crossed himself and declared almost gleefully, “Amen! “ +++ “No, you can’t go to Singapore!” Ned Zaragoza exclaimed shrilly over the phone. ”Why are you going to Singapore? Ginger, if this is about that band…” “Say one bad thing about the band and I will break every bone in your body!” Ginger shouted, cradling the phone between ear and shoulder as she packed for the trip. ”You could at least be supportive, Ned.” “Sorry, babe, but I think that band is a bad thing for you.” “And why is that?” Ginger hoped that her boyfriend of five years would take a hint already. “Well, it keeps you from your real work and…” “What? You think the Reine-Claude is my real work? After all these years you still think it’s my real work?” Ginger noted that her voice was inching up several octaves. She hoped that the thick walls of her flat would keep her tirade from waking up the other three occupants of her floor. “Well, you’re a better baker than you are a musician,” Ned replied; Ginger caught a touch of smugness in his tone. ”No offense, of course.” “No offense?” Ginger snarled. ”You want me to take no offense?!” “Babe, wait! I didn’t mean…” 14

“What the fuck did you mean, then? Are you saying I’ve no talent for music?” Her eyes slid over to the shelf that held at least two Grammies, three American Music Awards, a Gawad Urian statuette, and two Asian Spirit prisms. Her eyes narrowed dangerously at that point. ”I’m starting to think Puck was right about you,” she snapped. “That’s another thing,” Ned chimed in. ”What is it between you and Henstridge?” Ginger clapped a hand over her face and groaned as she sank down on her bed. ”Listen to me, Theodore,” she snapped. ”Listen to me carefully: Robin and I have been friends since we were five, damn it. We lived next door to each other, we went to school together, we formed the band together, and – yes – he’s a partner for the Reine-Claude. He understands me; I understand him – and we’ve pretty much left it at that.” “Really?” Ned said dubiously. “Yes, really!” Ginger half-shouted. ”What the fuck is wrong with you today? Look: if you don’t want to drive me to the airport this early in the day, I’ll just grab a cab – because, whether you like it or not, I’m going to Singapore.” She drew a deep breath and uttered the words that gave her such a sense of deep satisfaction. ”My band needs me.” And she clapped the receiver down with a loud bang. The phone suddenly rang. Ginger grabbed the receiver and snapped, “What?!” “Ohohoho!” a woman’s cheerful voice replied. ”What’s died and crawled up your arse so early, girl? You sound seriously pissed!” Ginger sighed in relief when she heard Ditas Spencer’s voice. ”Deetz!” she exclaimed. ”I called Ned and asked him to drive me to NAIA – and he gave me an earful of cheek about the guys!” “Ay, putik!” Ditas swore. ”So he’s not picking you up? Well, you needn’t worry, my lamb; the babies and I are going to Singapore on the same flight, so we’ll pick you up.” “Oh, you are!” Ginger felt so relieved and mentally cussed herself out for not considering her friend and the band’s manager – who also happened to be Argie’s better half. ”Thanks, Deetz. I’ll be ready in a bit. Say, can we

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stop by the shop? I need to pick up your man’s cookies and a few other treats for the gang.” “No prob, sistah!” Ditas chuckled. ”I’ll see you in a bit. Bash on, girl!” +++ “Dada! Dada! Dada!” Ginger smiled as the twin little boys scrambled to meet their father at the airport lobby. Beside her, Ditas had a satisfied smile on her face. “Just look at that man,” she enthused, pointing out the tender way by which Argie had scooped the twins up in his arms. ”Isn’t he wonderful? Ginger pretended to yawn and look bored. ”Well, I guess so,” she replied dubiously. ”If you like ‘em blond and chiseled, that is. Never cared much for the Germanic sort.” “Ah, yes.” Ditas threw her a kittenish grin, “because Mam’zelle Ginevra-Gertrude likes ‘em with dark, wavy hair, rosycheeks, and an angelic face.” Ginger glared at her and playfully tried to kick her in the shins. ”Of course not!” she protested; but the blush on her cheeks was a dead giveaway. “And mam’zelle likes her lads short of stature,” Argie teased when he drew near with the boys. Joey was snickering behind him. ”No need to tiptoe if she wants a smooch or two.” “You, my good friend, are forgetting that my boyfriend is as tall as you are,” Ginger reminded him. “Ah, I keep forgetting you actually have a boyfriend,” Argie chuckled, stooping down to kiss her cheek. “So does your wife, actually.” Argie laughed at that. He put his sons down and easily lifted his petite wife up to kiss her. One of the boys tugged at the hem of Argie’s shirt and looked up with a questioning expression. “Yes, Gabe?” the proud father asked the little one. ”What’s wrong?” “Dada,” the mite chirped. ”Where Ninong Puck?”

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“Over at the venue, son.” Argie crouched down to his sons’ height. ”You boys want to see ninong?” “Yesh, yesh, please!” The other twin took Ginger’s hand. informed his father. “Did she?” Argie beamed at her. ”Mango, I hope?” Ginger sighed and took a box out of one of her hand-carried bags. She handed it to Raphael, murmuring something in the little boy’s ear that made him laugh. Solemnly, the child carried the box to his father. “Ninang say you can only have one if you give me an’ Gabriel one, too,” he advised his father. Argie roared with laughter at that. He opened the box and offered the cookies to his sons. Each child took one and kissed their father gratefully. Argie handed one each to Joey and Ditas, then proceeded to munch on the rest with impunity as they made their way to the van. “How’s everyone?” Ginger asked when they were on the way to Suntec. “We’re good,” Joey replied, seeing how Argie couldn’t talk with his mouth full. ”Kei wants to go over the chords of the newer songs with you during rehearsal, by the way. And Puck said to ask if you’d brought a violin.” “I brought both the violin and the cello, as well as my bass,” Ginger replied, nodding. ”We’re going acoustic tonight?” “Somewhere in the middle. You know the notes to Forever and Six?” “Yes, Puck and I went over that song at home before you guys recorded it.” “Dream/Nightmare Cycle?” “Yup.” “The Middle of Nowhere?” “Ah, no. I’m going to have to brush up on that one, I think. Incidentally, what are we opening up with?” “Working Man,” Argie replied after taking a swallow of water. ”I think you remember the lyrics to that?” ”Ninang bring cookies,” he

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“What? The one that goes I slave away in the day well through the midnight hour / I’ve promises to keep and bills to pay / I can’t call my soul my own?” Ginger asked, singing a few lines in her soft alto. “Yep, you got it.” Argie grinned at her. ”Looks like someone’s got lots of practice.” Cheekily, Ginger stuck her tongue out at him. +++ I slave away in the day Well through the midnight hour I’ve promises to keep and bills to pay I can’t call my soul my own. Toiling, roiling, burning out All for what, I don’t know now Slaving away, working, driving, Toiling, roiling till my dying day. Puck sang a cappella as he practiced for the evening’s performance. Behind him, Keiichi was talking about the set list with the sound engineers. Around them, carpenters and set dressers worked to bring the Gothic graveyard concept to life. Puck paid them all no mind, caught up as he was in the songs. It was how he trained himself: singing to an accompaniment his friends played in his head. Even when Ginger left the band, she was always the one playing bass in his head. Or violin. Or cello, come to think of it. He was getting into the chorus of Working Man when he heard someone singing an alto counterpoint along with him. Startled, he stopped and spun around to see who it was. Before he could say anything, a fat buttery was shoved into his open mouth. He stared in disbelief at the other butteries in the box before him – more so at the owner of the arm that held it.

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“Why the shocked look on your face, mate?” Ginger asked, a huge grin on her face. Wordlessly, the bun still in his mouth, Puck grabbed her in a tight hug and only let go when she complained that he was choking her. “You’re a lifesaver, lass!” he sighed between bites of the rich, croissant-like bun. He wrapped an arm about her waist the way he’d always done since they were children and walked her over to Keiichi. ”Kei, look who’s here!” “Hey!” Keiichi slapped a double-five with Ginger. He frowned and pointed accusingly at Puck. ”Ginge, tell your friend he’s a pig! By the time Argie told me you’d sent a tray of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck already ate half of it!” “I was hungry!” Puck complained to Ginger. correctly, the note on that tray was addressed to me!” “Yes,” Ginger agreed. ”But I recall telling you to share the dessert with the guys! God, but you do get greedy, Puck.” She eyed him worriedly. ”You’re as pale as a sheet!” she declared. ”Isn’t that woman of yours taking care of you?” “She’s not here,” Puck replied quietly. “What?” “I told her not to follow us to Singapore,” he remarked with a shrug. ”Told her to go home to Manila, said I was busy.” Taking her by the hand, he led her to where the music stands had been set up. ”Let’s not talk about Lucille,” he said. He suddenly looked up and around. ”I take it Ned didn’t come with you?” “Come with me?” Ginger snorted derisively. ”He didn’t even want me to go in the first place!” Puck threw her an intense look. ”What?” Out came an embittered confession of what was said over the phone early that day. Puck’s blue eyes would soften to a deep violet as he regarded his best friend sympathetically, but hardened to the color of ice when he heard what Ned thought of the band. He would have to take care of that when they got home to Manila. ”And if I remember

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Now, though, he pressed his nose to Ginger’s, their lips dangerously close to kissing. “I’m glad you’re here,” he told her. She smiled up at him, and then flung her arms around him, squeezing him tight. +++ Ginger thought that she would have a hard time getting herself back into sync with the band, considering how it had been five years since she last performed with them. But strangely, she found herself falling effortlessly back into the old routine: Puck’s rigorous vocal workouts, the choreography, the timing, the drama added by extended intros and solos. The chemistry she thought she no longer shared with the guys was still there – and it was strong. Rarely out of her chef’s whites even on weekends, she felt oddly comfortable in the T-shirt, jeans, and rather battered blue espadrilles she wore at rehearsal. She even went barefoot when she practiced jumping off higher platforms the way she did when she was with them full time, scaring Puck half to death with her derring-do. “Bluidy ‘ell, lass!” he shrieked after one particularly high jump. ”Ye’ll break yer neck wi’ those stunts o’ yers!” “Oh, come off it, Henstridge!” she shot back. He skulked off, muttering darkly to himself, prompting some serious giggles from an increasingly giddy Ginger. “Oh, Ro-o-bin!” Ginger cooed teasingly. “What?!” Puck growled. But his temper softened when she playfully blew him a kiss. Chuckling softly, he went offstage to take a break. He ran into Argie who had a somewhat bemused look on his face. “Something wrong, mate?” he asked his blond friend. “No,” Argie replied, shaking his head. He tilted his chin towards Ginger who was blithely strumming the bass to accompany Joey who was playing the melody of one of their older songs. ”She’s a wonderful girl, Puck.” 20

Puck turned his head to the stage, smiling as he heard Ginger’s hearty laughter. ”Aye,” he replied softly in agreement. ”That she is.” +++ “You guys ready?” Ditas asked when she went backstage. “As we’ll ever be,” Ginger replied dryly, patting Puck’s shoulders as she finished combing his unruly brown hair the way she always did before any performance. In the mirror, he smiled cheekily up at her. It was only then that Ginger noted the pendant he wore. “What is that?” she asked him. “Oh, this?” He removed the chain from around his neck and handed it to her. ”What’s it look like, me girl?” It was a lower-case g rendered in platinum. When Puck put it back on, Ginger couldn’t help but feel a bit touched by it. “Your girlfriend knows you wear that onstage?” she asked him gruffly. “Aye,” he replied. ”I’ve had it since ye first left us.” He smiled rather shyly. ”I wear it, an’ it’s like ye ne’er left ma side. ‘Tis me good luck charm. Lucille does nae hae t’ like it.” “I also take it that she can’t stand it when your Scots accent grows as heavy as it is now,” Ginger remarked, but not unkindly. “Och, she hates it!” Puck declared. ”Says it’s nae refined enough for a man o’ me titles.” Ginger smirked. People always forgot that Puck was a nobleman. Robin Andrew Mackenzie Balfour Henstridge, Earl of Baillieston – heir to one of the world’s biggest shipping fortunes. Personally, she’d never thought of him as one because they were always so comfortable with each other. However, she supposed that it was probably the only reason why his girlfriend hadn’t broken up with him despite their increasingly visible incompatibility – the possibility of becoming Countess Henstridge was too big a temptation. “Well, if she makes fun of you,” Ginger told him now, “you can always run over to me.”

21

“I know.” Puck tenderly kissed her hand. ”And if that man o’ yers gives ye any grief, me girl, gimme a call an’ I’ll sort the bastard out.” “How’s the crowd out there, love?” Argie asked his wife as he handed her a paper cup of coffee. “Why don’t you guys see for yourselves?” Ditas suggested, pointing to one of the monitors set up backstage. Ginger blanched at what she saw. Suntec was packed to full capacity – there were even people in the aisles! “Bluidy fookin’ ‘ell!” Puck gasped. ”A full house?!” “Yeah,” Ditas agreed. ”We’re sold out – and then some.” Ginger caught flashbulbs blinking out front. ”Looks like the press is here,” she murmured. “Yup – and you guys are due for the usual last-performance-of-the-tour press conference after this.” Reckless Imprudence all fell silent at that last announcement. Then, Puck stood up and turned to face them all. “What are we waitin’ for?” he asked them, blue eyes sparkling with fun. ”Let’s do this!” “Places, y’all!” Ginger shouted, the way she used to back in the day. “Break a leg, woman,” Argie teased her. “Break ‘em both, mate!” she called back, slinging on her bass. ”You guys, too!” she called to Joey and Keiichi. “What about me?” Puck asked. “You don’t need the luck, mate,” she teased him with a wicked grin. “Och, aye, sure…” To everyone’s surprise, he marched right up to Ginger and kissed her cheek a bit too close to her lips. ”For good luck,” he said with a sly wink. Outside, the lights dimmed and the crowd suddenly roared. Ginger began to play the dark, growling bass line that characterized the Working Man intro, leading in Joey on rhythm. Then, Argie on lead. Finally, there was a crash of cymbals as the curtain lifted and Puck began to sing. Blood, sweat, and tears are all I have My strength, my breath, my life. I burn myself out like a raging fire 22

Burning on a rampage But what for? What for? I slave away in the day Well through the midnight hour I’ve promises to keep and bills to pay I can’t call my soul my own. Toiling, roiling, burning out All for what, I don’t know now Slaving away, working, driving, Toiling roiling till my dying day. The audience gasped collectively when they saw who was playing bass. It wasn’t lanky Colin of previous performances, not the likable but rather uninspiring kid who did bass for Reckless Imprudence. They were suddenly on their feet, clapping, cheering – and some even cried – at the sight of their undisputed queen of bass, their true lady. Ginger Algarme was onstage with the band – and it was like she’d never left! The next song was from the new album, but Ginger threw herself heart and soul into the thundering bass line that evoked the darkness, the hidden sorrows that Puck sang about. She played – and people wondered if the front man was actually singing for – no, to - her. Whenever I close my eyes I am transported elsewhere, Somewhere I’d rather be, Somewhere I’m supposed to be, Somewhere I can’t be And it’s all my fault. Whenever I close my eyes I see someone’s face: 23

A face I dearly miss, A face I want to kiss But things are all amiss, And it’s all my fault. Wake me up, Someone wake me up! Get me out of here, Get me away from here! Let me be, Leave me be Just stop this madness, Stop it now. +++ Ginger could not help but feel apprehensive as she tuned her violin during the intermission. The second part of the show was going to start with an acoustic performance of one of her personal favorites, a song called Forever and Six. Featured on Reckless Imprudence’s eighth album (their third without Ginger), she was mentioned as the composer. The lyrics, however, were from a poem she caught Puck writing one evening after he’d spent the day helping out at the bakeshop. He’d protested about her setting the words to music, but would never say why. As the curtain rose, she drew the bow across the strings, playing a haunting melody that somehow softened the grim, stark edge of the bassheavy original. Argie joined her, playing a deep, somber counterpoint on cello. Then, Puck’s deft fingers almost delicately skimmed over the keys of the grand piano in the middle of the stage. If I could be with you, If I could stop the time, If I could spend forever and six days with you, 24

I would and I will. So kiss me now, So hold me close, We may not have forever, We may not have it just yet, But at least we have tonight. Ginger felt her heart skip a beat as her best friend sang. She stood with her back to him, even as he sat with his back to her. But she could not help but feel that he was actually looking at her, even if she knew that was impossible. If I could keep the world away, Stop it from coming between us, If I could break the walls between us, I would and I will. So take my hand, Let me hold you close, I’d really love forever, But until the right time, At least we have tonight. Meanwhile, Puck was trying to hold back the tears as he sang and played the piano. He supposed that Ginger always thought that he’d written that song for Lucille, seeing how his father never liked the woman. Ginger probably assumed that he felt that their love was forbidden and that he’d do anything to have her. Oh, lass! he thought, his heart seeming to falter. If ye only knew who I wrote this one for! Let me wipe your tears, Let me hold you tight, 25

Let me fight off the world, Let us share this space, Let us share this place. Please kiss me now, Please let me love you, Please let it be forever… The violin seemed to falter as Ginger suddenly realized who the song was actually for, but she kept playing. She would keep playing. But the piano suddenly stopped, causing her to spin sharply. “But if we can’t have it yet,” she sang, her voice soft but startled as Puck turned to face her. “At least, we have tonight,” he replied, a single tear running down his cheek. The least the audience could do in the face of this unspoken revelation was to rise to its feet and applaud with all its might.

Tossed Salad But if we can’t have it yet… At least we have tonight. On the outside, Ditas Spencer looked about as cool and calm as the proverbial cucumber. Inside, however, she was barely able to stop herself from squealing in sheer, unbridled delight. And finally! she thought as she watched the band through the monitors backstage. Finally, Ginger figured out who Forever and Six had been written for. Finally, Puck said the things that really needed to be said.

26

Now if only they could get rid of their respective partners… That was the one fly in the ointment and Ditas was quite unsure as to what to do about it. As the band began to segue into harder songs, Ditas tried to think of a possible solution. It was at that point that her phone rang. Above the scarlet frames of her glasses, Ditas’s eyebrows rose when she saw who was calling. “Hi, Tito Fred!” she greeted Ginger’s father. “What’s up?” “Hello, Ditas,” he replied. He sounded like his usual jolly self, but Ditas couldn’t shake off the feeling in the back of her mind that something was up. Something was wrong back in Manila. “How’s the concert going?” Ditas put him on speaker and put her phone near the monitors. “Hear that, Tito Fred?” she beamed. “The crowd’s just so crazy right now. It’s fantastic!” “Good God!” Fred Algarme exclaimed. “My little girl hasn’t lost the touch, has she?” “Oh, definitely.” “Well…” Suddenly, Fred’s mood grew somber. “I hope the euphoria will be enough to tide her through.” He drew a deep breath; Ditas felt that he was steeling himself for something. “She won’t like what I’ve just found out, Ditas.” Ditas went cold all over and impulsively clutched at the back of a nearby chair for support. “What’s going on?” she asked. “It’s that boyfriend of hers.” As he spoke, Tito Fred’s voice grew quite angry. “I was on my way home and passed by the security office. I haven’t called Ned on the carpet as yet, but I caught him fooling around with one of the interns.” “Wait, what…?” Ditas blinked in disbelief. She wasn’t hearing this. She was not hearing this! “One of the interns?” Fred Algarme ran one of the biggest

27

diplomatic consultancies in the world; he had interns from all over the world. “One of your interns?” “Unfortunately, yes. But that’s not the worst part of it, my dear.” “What do you mean?” Things couldn’t possibly be any worse. Not

unless… Ditas’s eyes suddenly widened in horror. “You… Surely, you don’t… I mean… No, really… That intern… Surely that intern wasn’t…” “It was a male intern.” “Oh, God!” Ditas sank into the chair. She had to sit down; the shock was too much even for her. “Ginger’s going to…” She stopped herself suddenly. Then, “Tito Fred, I’d better tell you now; if Puck finds out about this, there might not be anything left of Ned for anyone to bury!” +++ “Hang on: you mean to tell me Ginge’s dad caught Ned with some bloke’s knob in his mouth?” Argie nearly choked over the words; so great was his disgust. Ditas regarded her husband sheepishly. “Actually, dear,” she said. “It was the other way around.” The concert ended most successfully and the band performed two more songs for an extremely well-received encore. Unfortunately, particularly where Ginger was concerned (and Puck by extension), the elation plummeted into sheer horror by the news that met them backstage. Upon hearing her father’s grim, worried voice over the phone, Ginger went all limp and would have slumped to the floor if Puck hadn’t caught her. Her personality being what it was, she never went into hysterics. Instead, horror gave way to grief and Puck was hard-pressed to console his best friend. “That was just sick,” Joey exclaimed in a disgusted tone. 28

“I

wonder

if

this

is

the

first

time

it’s

happened,”

Kei

murmured

thoughtfully. “But, then again…” “Given how he keeps putting Ginger down,” Argie intoned ominously, “I don’t think so.” “We can stand here and speculate all night, but that doesn’t change a thing,” Ditas chimed in. “He cheated on Ginger. It’s that plain and simple.” She turned and was about to ask Puck for his opinion, but stopped when she saw him cradling their weeping friend in his arms, rocking her gently as if she was a child and whispering softly into her ear. It would have been so touching, so innocent – except that Puck had taken off his sweaty T-shirt and Ginger was nestled against his naked chest. It put Ditas in mind of a Guess ad, but she figured that this just wasn’t the time for such random thoughts. They had to help Ginger. They had to do something. Then, “Pull yerself together, Ginger me girl. We’ve a press con to go to.” “Oh, dear…” Trembling, Ginger dashed the tears off her face with the backs of her fingers. “You…” She drew a shaky breath. “You boys go on without me,” she hiccupped. “I… I’m just the spare…” Gently, Puck helped her to her feet and pushed her in the direction of the washrooms. He gave her hand a squeeze and waved her off, his blue eyes all limpid and soft. But the softness went out of his eyes when she left. As Puck turned to the others, those eyes were as cold and as hard as ice in barely suppressed rage. “I’m going to kill the bastard when we get home,” he muttered angrily. “Ginger’s dad was hoping you would,” Ditas told him calmly. She threw him an odd smile. “He said he and the boys can wait for you.” By “the boys,” Ditas meant Ginger’s three older brothers. 29

“Even Kuya Henry?” Despite

how

he

felt,

Puck

couldn’t

help

but

smile. Ginger’s eldest brother was a priest – a monsignor, as a matter of fact. “From what I gathered, yes! Tito Fred says Kuya Henry actually suggested something along the lines of burning Ned Zaragoza at the stake.” “Och, but those Algarme lads are a step ahead o’ all o’ us! I was just thinkin’ o’ buryin’ Ned alive.” Presently, Ginger returned. Her face didn’t look so ravaged, though her eyes were a bit puffy. She’s fixed her high ponytail and applied some lip gloss. “Shall we?” she asked, easily slipping a hand into Puck’s. “Lass, you want me to go face the press wi’ out me shirt on?” he exclaimed. She wiggled her eyebrows playfully at him. “You look presentable enough,” she teased him. Playfully, he tweaked her nose and grabbed a shirt handed to him by a member of the staff. Yanking the shirt on, he half-dragged her to the press room. The rest of the band and Ditas grinned among themselves, then followed them out. +++ From the pages of a Manila broadsheet… “Ginger Algarme, erstwhile bassist for Reckless Imprudence, just showed the world she still rocks – and boy, did she roll! Algarme’s five-year absence from the music scene has done little to dim her brilliance, seeing how she threw herself heart and soul into her performance.” From a popular international gossip site… 30

“The most stirring part had to be Algarme and Henstridge’s amazingly poignant acoustic rendition of the Reckless Imps’ hit single Forever and Six. The stirring violin and cello accompaniment done by Algarme and lead guitarist Argyll Spencer was amazing and, when paired with Henstridge’s sublime baritone, magical. “Fans went wild at the final part of the song where a seemingly startled Algarme sang together with Henstridge, rekindling longstanding rumors of a romantic relationship between the two.” +++ The five of them took their places at the presidential table even as cameras began flashing around them. Puck sat in the middle with Ginger and Argie to his right, Joey and Kei to his left. Reporters noticed that he had an arm linked with Ginger’s the whole time, but no one said anything. “Hello, everyone,” Puck greeted the crowd of reporters, using a more understandable English accent rather than his Scots burr. It made things easier all around. He grinned impishly – puckishly, some would put it – and graciously gestured to Ginger. “Look who’s back!” “Hi, everyone,” Ginger greeted them, wiggling the fingers of her free hand at the flashing cameras. “It’s great to see you all again.” “We’re now fielding questions,” Ditas announced, holding up about a dozen index cards she’d passed around earlier. “Gillian Kramer of the New York Times?” “Yeah!” A tall brunette rose and spoke. “Ginger, how does it feel to be back in circulation?” “It’s kind of nerve-wracking,” Ginger admitted with a wry laugh. “Argie called me super-early this morning and told me to haul myself onto the first flight to 31

Singapore.” She threw her blond bandmate a stern look. “As if that weren’t bad enough, he bullied me into bringing a fresh batch of cookies!” This prompted chuckles from the crowd. “Then Puck told me just yesterday that they missed me, but I really think what they missed was my cooking!” Everyone in the room laughed at that point. “But, seriously: it’s great to be back.” “Amanda Villaluz of the Philippine Daily Inquirer,” Ditas called. “Hey, Mandy!” Ginger greeted the pretty dark reporter who had covered the band for nearly a decade. “Hey!” Mandy grinned hugely at the band. “You were amazing, Ginger! Why, it’s almost as if you never left Reckless Imprudence!” She narrowed her eyes speculatively. “Have you been practicing on the sly?” Ginger turned to Puck who was grinning hugely at her. “That was all on purpose?” she demanded. “You dragged me off to practice with you on purpose?” “For a sharp person like yourself, it took you five years to figure it out?” Puck regarded her with mock dismay. “I’m shocked at you, Ginger. Shocked!” “My best friend, ladies and gentlemen!” Ginger exclaimed, pointing to Puck. “After knowing him for 25 years, I’ve just confirmed that he’s trying to get me in trouble.” “I’m trying to get you into trouble?” Puck protested, laughing. “Oi, you’re the one who told me to attend the press con shirtless!” He turned his wide-open, innocent-seeming blue eyes to the crowd. “She actually wanted me to come here without a shirt! What a scandalous notion!” “Kidding aside, though, I am grateful that Puck did bring me along.” Ginger smiled and her sincerity shone. ”It’s like I never left. Come to think of it, the boys never really allowed me to leave.” 32

She fist-bumped with Argie and slapped high-fives with both Joey and Kei. Then, to the shock of everyone present, unabashedly kissed Puck full on the lips. And it was a seriously lingering kiss at that. “So, yeah,” Ginger said, beaming. ”I’m glad to be back.” +++ “How’d it feel?” The boys cornered Puck in the restroom after the press conference. Puck looked up from where he was washing his hands to stare rather dazedly at them. “Well?” Argie nearly screamed, so great was his anticipation. “Wow,” Puck gasped, closing the faucet. He gripped the side of the sink, eyes widening in wonder. ”I mean, wow… Mate…” He gripped Argie by both arms. ”Damn it all, mate! Years o’ waitin’ - all those godsdamed years o’ waitin’…!” He beamed, obviously delighted. Elated, as a matter of fact. ”Bluidy fookin’ ‘ell! ’Twas worth it - so definitely worth it!” Then, a shadow seemed to come over his face. ”But…” Argie and the others were just as crestfallen. relationship was nothing to sneer at. Joey shook his head in dismay. murmured worriedly. “We…” Kei shook his head, quite unsure what to tell their friend. ”We’ll wait for you guys outside,” he said quietly, nodding for Joey to follow him out. As the door closed behind them, Argie turned to Puck who looked dreadfully bewildered. “The last time I saw that look on your face was when your mum died when we were in fourth grade,” he remarked quietly. ”You had this blank look on your face all the time, as I recall. Not even your dad could get through to you.” Puck nodded in silence. He drew a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket and offered one to Argie. The latter politely declined, but took out a lighter 33 ”I don’t know what to say, pare,” he Puck was - alas! - still

technically in a relationship. More than that, as bad as it was, a five-year

from his pocket and lit up the one Puck drew from the pack. It intrigued Argie that Puck just held the lighted cigarette. He just let it burn; he never brought it to his lips. A thought occurred to Argie just then. “One other thing,” he said. ”I haven’t seen you smoke since Ginger arrived.” “I haven’t smoked all day,” Puck agreed in a dazed fashion. “Come to think of it, I’ve always noticed that you never smoke when she’s around. But damn: you smoke like an active volcano whenever Lucille shows up! What’s up with that, mate?” “I smoke whenever I’m stressed,” Puck admitted. “And you’re not stressed around Ginger?” “No. Never.” “So, why’d you light up but you aren’t puffing?” “Because I’m in love with Ginger, but I’m still tied to Lucille!” Argie turned sharply at the broken catch in his friend’s voice and saw tears streaming down his face. +++ An exhausted Ginger wearily brushed her wet hair as she got ready for bed. This whole day was an emotional roller coaster and now her head was spinning painfully from the impact. While she was properly horrified by her father’s report of her boyfriend’s infidelity, she was ecstatic over having done something she’d been wanting - no, craving -to do for a very long time. Whenever she kissed Ned, she never felt anything. Seriously, she wondered what other women were on about when they claimed that their lovers’ kisses were magical, even gloriously sensational. All kissing Ned ever did for her was just a slight, barely perceptible flutter. Kissing Puck, on the other hand… He has such soft lips, she thought dreamily as she brushed out her shoulderlength hair. Such soft lips…

34

Sure, Puck kissed her cheek or she kissed his, but their lips actually - finally meeting awoke certain feelings that the two of them always denied, claiming as they did that they were just best friends. The idea of such soft lips kissing her elsewhere made her blush deeply, making her chide herself for such naughtiness. Why, though her own relationship was now - for all intents and purposes, ill or good - definitely over, Puck still had a girlfriend. “This is wrong,” she told herself aloud, speaking sternly to her face in the mirror. Then, she sighed. ”But why does it feel so right?” She was pondering this when someone knocked on her door. Thinking that it was Ditas, she said, “Come in!” When she turned to see who it actually was, her brain seemed to screech to a halt. It was Puck. +++ “Um, you weren’t with us for dinner,” Puck said almost shyly as he stepped into Ginger’s room. ”So, uh…” He held up a take-away bag. ”I did a bit of a scamper out and got you somethin’ to eat.” “How kind of you!” Ginger exclaimed as she took the bag. ”Thanks, Puck.” “Er, uh… I’ll be sayin’ good night, then,” he mumbled somewhat brusquely, turning to go. “But, I was hoping to talk to you,” Ginger protested gently. He looked at her and his heart seemed to skip a beat. With her just-washed hair loose and falling like dark satin on her shoulders, her rosy complexion glowing, in the soft light, she took his breath away. “I haven’t seen you for months and we only spend five minutes talking to each other over Skype or Facetime,” Ginger continued as she went to open the bag and Puck shut the door behind them. The heady aroma of coconut milk, curry leaves, and dried prawns that permeated the air as Ginger took out the polystyrene bowl spoke volumes of the treat within. “Laksa!” she exclaimed as she opened the bowl.

35

“I figured you needed a bowl o’ soup after all we put ye through today,” Puck explained, sitting across the table from her. “‘Twas the least I could do after I yanked ye out here to perform at the last show o’ the tour.” “You’re a real friend, Robin Henstridge.” Puck managed a small smile at that. ”Aye,” he murmured. ”And I daresay that’s all I am.” Ginger looked up sharply. ”What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked him. Puck blanched. Wrong choice o’ words, he thought worriedly. Uh-oh… “I… Well, that is, um…” “Robin, is there something wrong?” “Aye,” he admitted, gazing full into her eyes. And what lovely eyes she has! he thought. Ginger drew her chair up closer to his and clasped his hands. ”Are you going to start keeping secrets from me now?” she asked. “Nae, but…” “Look: I’m sorry I kissed you at the press con,” Ginger said apologetically. ”I didn’t mean for you to…” But he cut her off. He cut her off by covering her lips with his. He took her in his arms, feeling a sense of completion in the process. A sense of completion that, truth be told, he never felt with Lucille. “Dinna say sorry about what happened,” he whispered between fevered kisses. ”Because I’m not.” “But, Lucille…” He pressed a finger to her lips. ”Let’s not talk about Lucille, please,” he begged her. ”How come we ne’er talk about us?” “Because we never had any reason to,” Ginger replied. “Do ye think we’d be better off just friends?” he asked her, dreading the answer. “I used to think so,” she admitted, not daring to meet his frank gaze. “Used to?” 36

“Yes. I think I’ve always been in love with you, Puck.” “Aye.” Puck’s pale face grew warm; he knew he was seriously blushing. ”Ye should nae worry about me gettin’ upset about that,” he said. When Ginger looked up at him, he took a deep breath and finally told her the truth. “I’ve been in love with you since we were kids,” he said. +++ The following morning, Argie went into Puck’s room to wake him up for breakfast. “Mate, are you up yet?” he called in a singsong voice as he threw the door of the room open. ”Rise and…” He choked back an oath when he saw the bed. It was empty. In fact, it had never been opened. Bemused and more than a little worried by this odd development, Argie stepped into the common sitting room where everyone had gathered for breakfast. “Has anyone seen Puck?” he asked them. ”I checked his room - and it looks like he wasn’t here all night.” His wife threw him a calm smile as she buttered scones for their cheerfully chattering sons. “Go check Ginger’s suite,” she told him. ”He’s there.” When she saw the scandalized looks on the guys’ faces, she rolled her eyes and groaned. “He spent the night on the couch,” she informed them. ”He’s also fully dressed save for his sneakers.” “Oh,” was all Argie could say as he took the seat beside his wife. ”That’s all right then.” +++ “Oh, grief and circumstance!” Ginger declared as she looked out the window. ”Look at that!” As the plane taxied onto the NAIA runway, the rain poured in sheets around it. A cold wind blew outside.

37

Puck stared out at the tempest, seemingly lost in thought. He would go home to his flat in Makati, talk to Lucille, end things amicably. He winced inwardly, however. Lucille being who and what she was would not give up without a fight. He slid his eyes over to Ginger whom he sat next to. She seemed calmer now and, when she looked his way, smiled at him the way he’d always wanted her to. It was a gentle, understanding sort of smile. It was the kind of smile exchanged between Argie and Ditas, between the parents of all his closest friends. The same smile he remembered his parents sharing before his mother died. Darlin’, what would ye do if Lucille says she’ll nae let me go? he thought as their eyes met. As if she read his mind, she patted his arm and reassured him, “I meant what I said: if Lucille makes any trouble for you, you can always run to me.” “Thank ye,” he murmured, gratefully kissing her hand. Since it was so late at night and given the inclement weather, Reckless Imprudence’s management chose to have the band’s final press conference at another date. It was a decision that caused everyone no end of relief. Everyone piled wearily into the large van that would take them all to Makati. No one felt much like talking. The Spencers dozed, one child in each lap. Joey was fast asleep. Kei was quietly thumbing through the appointments his secretary set for him in his tablet. Puck and Ginger were quietly bantering, laughing at silly memories from their years growing up. “I remember how your mom used to tell you off whenever you rushed out of the house without combing your hair,” Ginger chuckled. Puck snickered at the memory. ”Aye,” he said. ”And d’ye remember how Mam used to say ‘Och, come back here, lad! I’ll nae have people think yer a haystack!’” “She really loved you,” Ginger said. ”I remember how you were when she died.” Puck nodded quietly. ”Argie actually brought it up last night,” he said. “I wish you’d never be so stunned so out of your mind ever again,” Ginger sighed. ”We were so scared when you stopped talking.” 38

Puck slid a glance at her, half-smiling as he wondered to himself if she remembered. “Well, here’s your stop,” Ginger said as the van pulled into the driveway in front of the high-rise where Puck lived. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” he promised as he kissed her. ”And I’ll be glad to help at the shop if ye need me.” “Okay. Sleep tight.” “You, too!” Yawning, Puck stumbled rather sleepily into the lobby and waved hello to the guards and receptionists who greeted him. Rather bemused, he thumbed the button for the 23rd floor of the building. He stepped out of the elevator, sleepily wheeling his travel trolley behind him like a schoolkid. He stopped in front of his own unit and fumbled in his pocket for the key, one hand on the doorknob. He accidentally leaned forward and - to his surprise - the doorknob turned easily. The door was unlocked. An uneasy feeling came over Puck as he entered his flat. He caught a whiff of Lucille’s perfume; but more than that, he caught the scent of beer and a rather sweetish smelling smoke. He stood stock still in the doorway. He heard voices. He heard moaning and laughter - and it was all coming out of his bedroom. Filled with dread, he quietly made his way across the sitting room to his bedroom door. His mind made note of what he saw: clothing strewn on the floor. Half-empty beer bottles on his coffee table. Smoking embers in an ashtray. Heart pounding, he opened the bedroom door just a crack and peeked within. He choked back a gasp at what he saw. Lucille was in there. Three men were with her. And it looked as though she was having the time of her life. Quietly, Puck closed the door and looked around him. He was exhausted and overwhelmed. He felt like screaming, like swearing. He felt like breaking everything in sight. He felt like grabbing a knife from the kitchen and stabbing… God, what a mess this was!

39

Trembling in every nerve, he manfully shouldered his knapsack and drew his trolley behind him. He exited the flat, boarded an elevator that had, just in time, opened. When the elevator deposited him at the lobby, he noticed that the rain was still falling heavily outside. There was the rumble of thunder, the flash of lightning. But he didn’t care. He couldn’t care. But he knew where to go. He knew what he had to do. +++ Ginger gratefully sank onto her couch in her own flat some two buildings away. Angus, the Scots terrier Puck had given her on her last birthday, frisked happily at her feet. He was happy to see her, having stayed at the pet shelter on the ground floor the previous day with the Spencers’ dog Magnus. Smiling, Ginger picked up the little black dog and put her feet up on her coffee table. “It’s good to be home,” she murmured as Angus licked her face. Her happy little reverie was broken when the phone rang. “Hello?” she said wearily. “Good evening, Miss Algarme,” the night receptionist replied. disturb you, but you have a visitor. He says it’s an emergency.” Ned?! she thought first. Suddenly, she felt an odd flutter within her. No, it can’t be Ned… “Who is it?” she asked. “It’s Mr. Henstridge. Should I send him up?” “Yes, please do.” What’s going on? she thought worriedly, going to the kitchen to put on a pot of tea. She looked out the window; the rain continued to pour. Why didn’t he just call? The doorbell rang and she went over to get it. ”Sorry to

40

“Hey, what…” The words died on her lips when she saw him. Puck still bore the knapsack and trolley he used for the tour. He was soaked to the skin and shaking badly. “Can I stay wi’ ye, tonight?” he asked in a trembling voice. “Sure, but… Oh, God! Puck!” She caught him just in time. He’d fainted. Touching his forehead, Ginger swore; he was running a fever. “Argie!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. ”Deetz! Kei! Dammit, guys help me!”

A Palate Cleanser Two doors slammed open on the 30th floor when Ginger screamed for help. Ditas choked back a horrified scream of her own at what she saw. Ginger - Ginger who never panicked, whom no one had ever seen panic - was wild-eyed and frightened as she sat on the threshold of her home, cradling the inert form of her best friend in her arms. “Stay here,” Argie advised his wife, gently pushing her back into their unit. “But…”

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“Hush.” Argie embraced her and kissed her forehead. ”You go and sleep now, love.” He took one look at Ginger and Puck and it was as if a cold knife was slicing deep into his very soul. ”I think we’re going to be in for a serious time. We’re going to have to back each other up for this.” Kei came sprinting down the hall, his physician’s bag at the ready. ”What happened, Ginge?” he demanded, whipping out a stethoscope and a strip thermometer. “I don’t know,” Ginger replied helplessly. ”He just came over. I opened the door, he asked if he could stay over, then he fainted.” She drew a deep breath, steeling herself against the tears that threatened to spill over. ”Kei, he’s feverish.” Kei pressed the strip thermometer to Puck’s burning forehead and grimaced as the colors flared almost as soon as the thermometer touched the skin. “39 degrees,” he said worriedly. “But he was fine when we dropped him off!” Ginger cried, tears finally falling. Argie quickly stepped into the breach. ”Go run the man a bath, Ginge,” he gently commanded her. ”Got any spare towels?” “Linen closet’s next to the kitchen,” Ginger replied, reluctantly turning Puck over to the boys. ”I’d just set some water down for tea.” “Good thinking,” Kei commended her. He was deftly unbuttoning Puck’s shirt. ”Go see to that bath, please. We’ll have him ready for it in a jiff.”

Ginger nodded and ran back indoors. Angus barked inquiringly up at her and she stopped to pick up and hug the little dog.

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“Daddy’s sick and staying with us for a bit,” she told him quietly, carrying him to the dog bed in a corner of her bedroom. ”Be a good boy for Mommy and stay here, okay?” Angus seemed to understand her as he just licked the tip of her nose and promptly curled up to sleep. Ginger ran a bath in the tub, adding capfuls of the eucalyptus and peppermint bath gels she kept on a shelf on the side. She also dropped in a handful of lemon-scented bath crystals. It was a fever-fighting combination she’d picked up from her childhood - strangely enough, from Puck’s mother. Meanwhile, between them Argie and Kei had stripped Puck of his wet clothes and wrapped him in towels. His eyes had fluttered open and, to their surprise, the first word on his lips was Ginger’s name. “Bath’s ready,” Ginger said as she stepped out of the bathroom. ”Better get him into it while it’s hot.” Briskly, she made her way back to the kitchen where the kettle whistled merrily. It was a somewhat ironic sound given the mood in the flat that night. She grabbed the first teapot and tea canister that came to hand. She

warmed up the pot with some water from the kettle and measured out a few teaspoons of tea into it. It was only when she poured hot water over the tea what she caught a familiar whiff of dark chocolate and orange zest. Despite the weight on her heart, she had to smile. She’d unwittingly picked out the tea she and Puck liked the most. “Are you all right, Ginger?” Argie asked as he entered the kitchen. “I’m okay,” she assured him, busying herself by getting a jar of honey from a cupboard, a small pitcher of cream from the fridge. “Did Puck say anything as to why he came over?” Argie sat across from her, his face troubled. “No,” she replied, pouring out a cup of tea for each of them. She looked up, meeting Argie’s candid green gaze, her own eyes suddenly alert. ”But he looked distressed,” she informed him. ”It was as if he saw something that frightened him.” “Frightened him?” Argie asked in disbelief.

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She couldn’t blame him for his disbelief. Puck Henstridge was not a man to scare so easily. “I have an odd feeling we need to go to Puck’s flat and do some investigating,” she said grimly as she stirred honey and cream into her tea. Argie sighed and regarded her gravely. curiously. ”What are we drinking?” “It’s called Year of the Tiger,” Ginger held up the canister which bore a cute baby tiger on the label. ”You don’t like it? I can make you another cup.” “Actually, I do like it.” Argie handed her his cup for a refill. ”Where’d you get it? I’d better go find some for me and Deetz.” “Puck and I picked it up from Healthy Options,” Ginger replied as she poured him another cup. Argie raised an eyebrow at that. ”You went shopping together?” he asked. “We always do,” Ginger replied with a shrug. ”Grocery-shopping, that is, every Saturday in the off-season.” “Ginger,” Kei suddenly chimed in, storming into the kitchen. ”Will someone please tell me why - and goddamn it why - Puck told me to go get his pajamas from the left-hand cabinet of the walk-in closet in the main bedroom?” He looked quite stern and more than a little confused. ”I thought he was being delirious and reminded him he was at your house.” “What’d he say?” Argie asked, his curiosity piqued. “He said he knew that and told me to get the damned PJs from the closet.” Kei held up the garments in question. ”And what do you know? They were actually there!” “And I’ll take those, thank you very much,” Puck croaked in a fairly cranky manner as he quietly walked up behind Kei and snatched the pajamas out of his hand, stalking back to the bathroom in a right snit. Ginger, Argie, and Kei all stared as he left and slammed the bathroom door behind him. ”I suggest putting it off till tomorrow,” he said as he took a sip of tea. He held his teacup and eyed it

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“Considering he rarely ever works out,” Ginger murmured absently, “he has a rather tight bum.” “I don’t like where this conversation is going,” Kei sighed as Argie snickered in a rather diabolical fashion and a faint blush stained Ginger’s cheeks. +++ Once Puck was dressed, Kei gave him a more thorough examination and came to the conclusion that he had to stay in bed for a few days. Given the fever and compounded by Puck’s exhaustion, Kei suspected the flu. “Better put him to bed, Ginger,” Kei suggested as he stowed his things back into the bag. ”He shouldn’t be allowed to go anywhere for the next couple of days.” “Anything else?” Ginger asked as she ushered him to the door. Kei looked grave and took her out into the hallway, far enough for Puck not to hear them. “Get him to talk about what happened,” he said. ”I tried to ask, but he clammed up.” He eyed Ginger worriedly. ”None of us wants what happened years ago to happen again.” At the back of his mind, Kei could still see Puck at age ten, rendered mute and catatonic for nearly the whole summer after the death of his mother. If Ginger hadn’t intervened, he thought, Puck would never have spoken again. Impulsively, he gripped her shoulder. ”You drew him out once,” he said quietly. ”I know you can do it again.” “I don’t know if I can,” Ginger admitted weakly. now, pare. We aren’t kids anymore.” “I know you can,” Kei said with a reassuring smile. ”More so now…” The words caught in his throat when he saw his normally indomitable friend so close to tears. ”More so now that what you feel for each other is out in the open.” In silence, Ginger shook Kei’s hand and nodded. ”Things are different

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“I’ll see you in the morning,” Kei promised. ”Take care of him, Ginger. Good night.” “Thanks, Kei. Good night.” +++ Meanwhile, back indoors, Puck was feebly protesting that he meant to sleep in the guestroom. Argie, being a good seven inches taller than he was, easily picked him up and rather indecorously deposited him into Ginger’s bed. “Did you really have to do that?” Ginger asked with an amused smile from where she stood by the doorway to her bedroom. “Are you just going to stand there and do nothing, woman?” Puck screeched as Argie held him down and covered him with a blanket. Argie caught the look on Ginger’s face as she sighed. It was going to be along week for everyone. “Stay there,” Argie admonished their weakly-protesting friend as he went to talk with Ginger. He ushered her to the living room as he closed the bedroom door firmly behind them. “I’ll stay in the guestroom, Argie,” Ginger suggested as she sat in her favorite armchair. “No,” Argie declared in a voice that brooked no nonsense. ”Kei said he can’t be left alone.” He lowered his voice gravely. ”We can’t have him contemplating suicide.” “Suicide!” The color seemed to drain out of Ginger’s face. “Ginge, the man’s burned out. He’s exhausted after a season of touring, he’s tired of facing the media, he’s tired of facing all those fans - and damn, but he’s sick and tired of that publicity whore he made the mistake of dating instead of you.” Argie cast a stern, level stare at his friend. ”He needs a break.”

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“But he never seems to stop working!” Ginger protested. ”Whenever he’s not composing, he’s either helping his dad out at the office or helping me at the shop!” “Believe it or not, it actually calms him down,” Argie chuckled. ”Checking out stock quotes or baking were always his stress-breakers, remember?” Ginger managed a wan smile. ”You should have seen him the last time he and Lucille fought,” she said. ”He cleaned the whole flat.” “His flat?” “No.” Ginger gestured around them. ”Mine! He stays here whenever he and Lucille fight.” She smiled at the memories. ”That’s why he has stuff in my closet.” “How…” long…” “Frequently,” Ginger replied wryly. ”Say, about once or twice a week in the off-season.” “He camps out with you?” “Yeah.” “How long has this been going on?” “Well, the whole time they’ve been together.” Argie.” “You mean… You mean Ned never minded?” “Puck usually made himself scarce whenever Ned showed up - though sometimes he’d stay just to annoy him.” “You never told us!” Argie protested. Ginger looked at him rather carefully. ”Argie, there are things between you and Ditas that you never tell any of the rest of us, right?” she asked him. “Yeah,” Argie admitted. “And just why don’t you mention these things to us?” Ginger laughed at the scandalized look on his face. ”Nothing’s happened between me and Puck, Startled by this revelation, Argie sank onto the couch. ”How

47

“They’re personal - well, connubial, if you want to be technical about it. It’s just between me and Deetz; so I don’t see the point of involving any of you.” Argie blinked as a realization hit him. ”As it is between you and Puck.” Ginger nodded. ”Precisely,” she yawned. Blinking owlishly she asked what time it was. Argie looked up at the clock on the wall. ”Just a little after two,” he replied, rising to his feet. “God, it’s that late? You’d better go home, mate, or Deetz will kill me!” “Nah, she won’t; she trusts you.” Argie hugged her. ”Take care of Puck, Ginge.” Soberly, he added, “Aside from his dad, you’re all the family he’s got.” “He has lots of relatives who dote on him,” Ginger corrected him. “Yeah, but only you and Uncle Alastair are here in the Philippines. Good night, Ginger.” “G’night, Argie, and thanks.” +++ When she went to check in on Puck, she found him sitting up in bed. He looked very worn out, but he still managed to smile as she came in. “Hey,” she said, sitting at the foot of the bed. “Hullo,” he managed to croak. Meekly, he asked if he could get a glass of water. ”My throat kind of hurts all of a sudden,” he admitted. Ginger gladly obliged him, bringing in both a glass of water and a cup of tea. “Drink the tea first before the water,” she told him. “It’ll soothe your throat. Did Kei give you any medicine?” “Yeah, a Bioflu tablet,” he replied after a sip of water. “Good, you’ll sleep like a baby, then.” Ginger stretched wearily and got off the bed. ”I’ll just go have a shower,” she said. ”Back in a bit.” When she returned, however, Puck was still awake, still very much distressed. “Can’t sleep?” she asked, her voice shaking a little. Truth be told, she had qualms about sharing a bed with him - and bother the fact that the massive four-poster could hold all five members of Reckless Imprudence very

48

comfortably. But Ginger plucked up her guts and curled up next to Puck, pulling the comforter over the both of them. “Nae,” he replied, sadly. He slid down and cuddled close to her. ”Could ye please hold me, Ginger ma girl?” he asked. Without hesitation, Ginger put her arms around him and held him close. Resting her head on his shoulder, she murmured, “I understand if you don’t want to talk about that woman right now.” She didn’t want to mention Lucille’s name. Not tonight. ”I wish I could make you feel better, though.” “You already are,” he mumbled sleepily. ”But, Ginge…” “Yes, Robin?” “She… She was at the flat.” were…” Ginger pressed a finger to his lips. She didn’t need any more details; she got the picture perfectly. “It isn’t so much her foolin’ ‘round with three guys,” he mumbled. ”But at my house?” “Well, she assumed that she was going to be a permanent fixture in your life,” Ginger chuckled grimly. ”I guess she felt it was as much hers as it was yours.” “Aye; ‘twas a sickenin’ sight to see.” “Try not to think about it, Robin.” Affectionately, she planted a kiss on his cheek. ”You’re here.” She drew a deep breath and added, “You’re home. That’s all that matters.” Puck tenderly kissed her, then sat up to switch off the bedside lamp. “G’night, Ginger me love.” “Good night, darling.” +++ The following morning, Argie invited both Kei and Joey over for breakfast. When the guys arrived, they couldn’t help but feel that the Spencers were hiding some great secret from them. Over plates of home-cooked tapsilog, they quietly discussed the events of the previous evening. Finally, feeling 49 His voice sounded more bewildered than broken, more shocked than sad. ”There were three guys with her and they

quite uncomfortable with the smug manner affected by both Argie and Ditas, Kei couldn’t resist any longer. “Did anything else happen when I left you guys last night?” he demanded of Argie. Ditas suddenly burst out laughing. Sheepishly, she excused herself and left the kitchen. “What’s with her?” Joey wondered aloud. “Let’s just say I staged an intervention,” Argie replied with a perfectly straight face. “What sort of intervention?” Kei asked. “I put Puck down in Ginger’s bed.” Joey stared at him in shock while Kei’s jaw dropped open. “You’re not serious!” Joey exclaimed. “I am,” Argie admitted mirthfully. ”Begging your pardon, Kei, but I actually used your name in vain.” “What do you mean?” “I told Ginger you were worried that Puck would consider killing himself and that you wanted her to stay with him.” Kei raised an eyebrow at that. ”You didn’t!” “I did. I had to.” “You had to?!” “Hey, I was getting tired of them leaving things hanging, so I decided to give them a push in the right direction.” Argie’s green eyes widened innocently feigned innocence, of course. ”Could you blame me?” The guys stared at him at first. Then, they both burst out laughing. Kei slapped him a high-five. “Putang ina, pare!” he swore, but was obviously delighted. ”Why didn’t I think of that?”

50

L’entrée

I listen to the rain outside Hear it crash on the ground, on the roof Like raging waves on the sandy shore. The first thing Puck heard when he woke up was Ginger singing just outside the door of the bedroom.

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It was a familiar song - Thunderstorm Tranquility. Not one of theirs, to be sure; in fact it was done by another band, The Garconers, whose front man was Joey’s twin brother. It was a rather appropriate song, given how it was still raining hard outside. Puck sat up in bed, noting the grim weather, the driving rain slashing at the window panes. Hugging his knees rather childishly, he sighed and wondered if everything that happened the night before was nothing but a bad dream. Not all of it, of course, he admitted to himself, blushing slightly. Having Ginger next to him in bed was the nicest - no, the very best - thing that could ever happen to him. Nothing happened, of course, but it was still the nicest thing to happen to him. The pain that seemed to course throughout his body seemed to confirm while that much was true, so were all the nasty bits that came before it. He hadn’t been dreaming at all. I listen and I wonder If it’ll ever stop And I know it will stop But I listen and I wonder If it could go on And on and on… “Hey, you’re up,” Ginger said as she opened the bedroom door. Angus came trotting at her heels, barking cheerfully as he bounded up to the bed. Puck laughed and picked up the black terrier. “He’s gettin’ to be quite the handsome wee lad,” he noted as he cuddled the little dog. “Yeah,” Ginger agreed as she sat next to him. She smoothed a stray lock of hair out of his face and lightly kissed the tip of his freckled nose. ”I take it you slept well.” “Like a wee bairn, ma love.” He slipped an arm about her waist to pull her close. ”Thanks for nae turnin’ me away last night.” “Why would I do that?” she asked. 52

“I dunno. Maybe you’d be tired o’ ma overly dramatic ways, I think.” She looked him straight in the eye. ”Personally, I’d rather you came over and had fun rather than stayed back in your flat and spent a miserable evening,” she said. He studied her for a moment and something seemed to fit in his mind, something that clicked rather loudly into place. He knew again what he had to do. But, again, he said nothing. Instead, “D’you suppose we could grab somethin’ to eat?” Teasingly, Ginger pinched his right cheek. ”Silly Sugar-Cookie!” she exclaimed. ”I was just waiting for you to wake up!” He would have retaliated, but she swiftly hopped off the bed and went scampering out of the room. Angus wriggled out of Puck’s arms and went after her. Puck had to laugh at the silliness of the whole thing and felt much better for it. +++ Don’t hate me for being me ‘Cause it’s how I’m supposed to be Mad or bad, Silly or sane Ain’t none of your beeswax What I’m gonna do. “I haven’t heard that in a while,” Ginger admitted as Puck came into the kitchen, singing at the top of his lungs. He winked at her as he took his place at the table. With his dark hair combed back, face washed and freshly shaved, he looked much younger than he actually was - more twenty than the actual thirty. Ginger also caught a whiff of vanilla and mint on his breath and smiled. Don’t push me around; I’m not as weak as you think. Better watch your back, Better think twice, Better start running, mate, 53

‘Cause I will fight back. “Can I help ye wi’ anythin’?” he asked her as she bustled about. “No need,” she assured him. ”I’m just about done; thanks anyway.” As she pulled a tray of fresh, buttery scones out of the oven, she turned to face him. ”Say, whatever possessed you to sing that?” “What? Does Not Play Well Wi’ Others?” Puck grinned at her. ”I dunno. Maybe I’m subconsciously tellin’ yer ex-boyfriend off.” “Fighting words, love,” Ginger chuckled. Puck pouted a little as she refused to let him help. For some odd reason, she seemed to be babying him at the moment. Not that he minded, of course, but it still made him raise an eyebrow. “Your phone’s been ringing all morning,” Ginger told him, handing him the offending gadget with a scowl on her face. Puck took it from her, noting the call records on the screen in distaste. Where u baby? read one text message. U going home na? read another. Fifteen missed calls all from the same number along with two voice mails. Puck deleted one, but smiled as he played back the other. “Lad, Argyll called me at two AM today to tell me you were at GinevraGertrude’s flat and that you were ill,” a harried voice declared in a thick Scots burr. ”Well, good on ye; better to stick to our Ginger rather than that strumpet you’ve the misfortune of dating in her place! Call me as soon as you can, lad.” Puck winced at his father’s frankness and Ginger just laughed. “Better call you dad, love,” she advised him as she brought a platter of bacon and fried mushrooms to the table. ”He sounds like his usual perky self, but I’ll bet you the poor man’s been worried.” Puck immediately dialed his father’s mobile number. He noted from the clock on the wall that it was only eight-thirty. Knowing his father, he was sure that the old gentleman was probably just having a cup of tea with the morning papers. Setting the phone on speaker, he and Ginger heard it ring a couple of times. Then, Alastair Henstridge’s gruff voice spoke up. 54

“Hullo?” “Hi, Dad,” Puck greeted his father, propping his phone against the teapot on the table. “Robin ma lad!” the Marquess of Leith exclaimed. ”Och, but ‘tis good to hear ye. I’ve been worried!” “Told you so,” Ginger mouthed at Puck. “Dad, I’m sorry I did nae call ye last night,” Puck replied apologetically. ”I did nae mean for ye to worry.” “I know, lad,” Alastair assured him, gently. ”I’m just glad you made it safe to Ginger’s. Argyll said your fever was quite high. How are ye no? Are ye feelin’ better?” Ginger planted a strip thermometer on his forehead and frowned a little as the colors began to flare up. “A bit lower - about thirty-seven degrees,” she informed Puck. ”You still have a fever, but it’s not as bad.” “Fever’s gone down a bit, Dad,” Puck relayed the information to his father. ”But aside from that an’ feelin’ like I got run o’er by a demolition derby, I feel better.” “I’ll stop by to see you in a bit if the young lady o’ the house won’t mind, o’ course.” “You’re always welcome, Uncle Alastair,” Ginger sang out. ”Why don’t you come over for lunch? I was thinking of whipping up that flaked adobo and foie gras pasta you and Robin are so fond of.” She winked slyly at Puck, knowing what he’d say next. “Please tell me ye hae a lunch meetin’, Dad!” Puck pleaded, hoping to save the treat for himself. “Och, I know that ploy, Robin!” his father protested. ”Nae, as a matter o’ fact I don’t. Do set a table for three, Ginger-lass.” Ginger laughed and leaned over to kiss Puck who was frowning rather disappointedly. “We’ll see you later, Uncle Alastair,” she said cheerfully, playfully yanking Puck’s nose. “Aye, thankee kindly, lass. And Robin?” 55

“Aye?” “I’m glad you’re home. I’ll see ye later. I love you.” “I love you, too, Dad. Bye for no.” Puck looked at Ginger at that point, suddenly realizing something. ”Say, why aren’t ye at the shop?” Ginger turned away sharply at that, but not before Puck noted that she’d gone pale. “Um, I thought I’d take a breather,” she said. ”You know how things are; you guys just dragged me off to Singapore to take over for Colin. I’m still pretty shocked by all that.” When she turned to face him, Puck had a grave look on his face. Sighing, Ginger threw her hands up in defeat and sat across from him at the table. “Kei asked me to take care of you while you were out of commission,” she admitted. ”Then Argie told me that you shouldn’t be left alone.” “Is that why you slept next to me last night?” “Well, um, yes…” Puck felt hurt at that. ”And that was the only reason why you slept next to me last night?” he asked. Ginger looked up and he saw the love in her eyes; he felt comforted by that. “No,” she admitted. ”It felt right for some strange reason. I’d stay with you even if there wasn’t the danger of you hurting yourself.” “Hurting myself?” Puck exclaimed, suddenly wide-eyed at this revelation. “Argie told me that Kei was worried that you might consider suicide.” “Suicide?! Why would I do that?” Puck was seriously horrified by the idea. He reached across the table to take both of Ginger’s hands in his. His blue eyes went all gentle and limpid as he spoke. ”Why would I hurt myself, Ginger?” “But…” Ginger spluttered, wide-eyed in her own confusion. ”But what about Lucille?”

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“Lass, I’ll break up wi’ the hag soon as I see her,” Puck declared with finality. ”As far as I’m concerned, it’s over between her and me as it is with you and Ned.” He raised an eyebrow at that. ”Speakin’ o’ the bastard, has he even called you since you got back?” As if on cue, the phone in the living room rang. Both of them headed over to see who it was. Sure enough, the label flashing on the caller ID told them that Ned Zaragoza was calling. “I can’t talk to him right now,” Ginger said, her voice going all flat and emotionless. Puck gently steered her back towards the kitchen. ”Would ye like me to deal wi’ the bastard for ye?” he asked her. She managed a wan smile, but there was a dangerous glint in her eyes. ”Only if you let me deal with Lucille,” she said. “Fair enough,” Puck nodded. ”Go eat your breakfast, love.” “Okay.” Grinning rather wickedly, Puck picked up the phone and laid the full brunt of his accent on thick. “‘Allo,” he greeted Ned. “Henstridge?” Ned Zaragoza’s nasal tenor sounded shocked. ”I thought you were on tour! What are you doing in Ginger’s condo?” Puck racked his brains for a moment to form a suitable reply. Sliding a glance over to Ginger, he suddenly smiled. He had the perfect answer. “I live here,” he replied most confidently. ”Got a problem wi’ that?” Ginger nearly choked on a sip of coffee at that point. “Robin Andrew Mackenzie Balfour, Viscount Henstridge!” she screeched in a choked whisper. ”What did you just say?!” Puck turned and stared at her rather innocently. He pressed a finger to his lips to shush her. ”Well?” he demanded of Ned. “What… When… God damn it, Henstridge!” Ned raged. ”What are you playing at?”

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“What am I playin’ at?” Puck hissed rather dangerously. ”Funny you should ask, Ned. I was planning to ask you the exact same thing.” Ginger half-rose from the table, but Puck motioned for her to stay where she was. “You’re makin’ me miss breakfast, Ned, so I’ll be brief,” Puck said in his coldest possible manner. ”I’ve found out somethin’ about ye that really disgusts me. I’ll deal wi’ ye when I’ve the time for it. But for now: keep away from Ginger. She deserves better.” He pursed his lips grimly. ”I mean it.” Then he put down the phone. “Your breakfast’s gone cold,” Ginger murmured absently when he returned to the table. “It’s nae problem, love.” When he sat down, however, he noticed that she was pale and trembling. ”Are ye all right?” Ginger nodded and threw him a weak smile. ”Just shaky is all,” she admitted. ”You made my heart stop with what you told Ned.” “Which part of it?” Puck asked as he took his plate to the microwave. “All of it.” Puck stared at her for a moment. Then, as he thumbed the keypad on the microwave, “I meant every word of it.” “Even the part about living here with me?” “Aye.” Above the whirring groan of the microwave, he said, “I’m thinkin’ o’ sellin’ the other flat. After everythin’ that’s happened, I dinna want anythin’ to do wi’ it. Speakin’ o’ which, has anyone bought the flat next door?” “No, it’s still up for grabs. Why?” “Well…” Puck took out his plate and returned to the table. ”I was thinkin’ o cuttin’ an entryway between this flat an’ that one an’…” Before he could finish, Ginger practically flew at him, knocking him down from the stool to the floor, her lips glued rather firmly to his. “You’re serious?” she demanded between kisses. “About what? Buyin’ the flat next door or marryin’ ye?” “Both.” “Aye, definitely, an’…” 58

The doorbell rang at that point and Puck felt ready to kill whoever it was at the door for killing the moment. “That’s probably Kei,” Ginger surmised as he helped her to her feet. “Can we just ignore the man, lass?” Puck asked plaintively. ”I was havin’ a ball just now!” Ginger laughed and put her arms around his neck. “I guess we can make him wait a bit longer,” she said as he lowered his lips to hers. +++ Three sets of eyebrows went up when Ginger opened the front door. Ginger was usually always immaculately dressed without a single hair out of place. This morning, however, her hair was a bit askew, her T-shirt rather rumpled, her face flushed, and her lips were a bit plumped out. Joey grinned as it hit him as to why she looked that way. “Pay up, gents,” he cheekily declared to their bandmates. Groaning reluctantly, Argie and Kei handed him a hundred-peso bill each. Joey grinned smugly and handed one bill over to Ginger. “What’s this for?” she asked him. “You helped me win a bet,” Joey chuckled as she ushered them in. “Hey, guys,” Puck greeted them between bites of breakfast. “Looks like someone had a good night,” Kei told Argie. “Either that or he just had the best snog of his life,” Argie replied, grinning devilishly. “His fever’s gone down a bit,” Ginger advised Kei. “Has it? Good, just keep him indoors for the rest of the day and he’ll be fine by tomorrow.” “Are ye sure I cannae go out today?” Puck asked him. ”I was thinkin’ o’ goin’ over to ma flat an’ take care o’ a few things.” “Planning to take out the garbage, dear?” Ginger snickered as she took a couple of containers from the fridge. “Aye,” Puck answered, blue eyes glinting. “Your building has a sanitation patrol for that,” Argie reminded him. “Mate, that’s nae the sort o’ garbage I was talking about.” 59

“He’s planning to sell the flat,” Ginger informed them as she deftly split a scone open, adding a fat glop of sweetened, lemony cream cheese on one half, topping it with the other, then spooning blueberry compote over it. She set it before Puck as she spoke. “What?” “You’re moving back in with your dad, pare?” Kei asked Puck. “Nae, o’ course not.” “So where are you planning to live?” “He isn’t planning,” Joey suddenly said, catching the odd grin Puck threw at Ginger. ”I think he’s just moved into his new home.” “Very perceptive of you, Joey,” Ginger applauded him. “But you can’t really say ‘new’ now,” Argie chimed in. ”Why, he practically camps out with you every other day in the off-season!” This last remark prompted a sudden, rather uncomfortable silence in the kitchen. “How long has this been going on?” Joey asked, one eyebrow raised. Puck rolled his eyes ceilingward and counted his fingers. Then, “About five years - or so.” “And you never told us?” 60

“Nae.” Puck cast a wide-eyed glance at them. ”You mean I should’ve told ye?” “No, but still…” Joey stopped when Ginger went to stand behind Puck, one hand resting on his shoulder. Almost absently, Puck reached up to cover that hand with his own. Joey smiled in understanding. ”I’m happy for you both. Took you guys long enough to come around.” “You’re going to have to square things off with your exes, though,” Kei reminded them. Someone began pounding at the front door at that point. “Ginger!” Ned shouted from outside. ”Ginger, open the damned door!”

The Main Course Dad, the text message began. Ned’s trying to get into my condo!

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Fred Algarme’s eyes widened and he choked back a bellow of rage. “Louis!” he half-shouted into the intercom. ”Is Zaragoza at his desk?” “No, Dad,” came the reply. ”He just left; said there was an emergency.” “Puneta!” Fred swore, rising to his feet. ”He’s gone to your sister’s condo! Grab your brother - we’re going after him!” +++ “Open this door or I’ll kick it in!’ Ned roared angrily just outside the flat. Ginger moved towards the door, but Puck held her back. “Stay out o’ harm’s way, lass,” he told her as he marched to the front door. Meanwhile, the other guys took up strategic positions around Ginger. Argie positioned himself on the living room couch in case Puck needed back-up. Kei leaned to one side of the kitchen doorway. Joey stood behind Ginger. Calmly, Puck opened the door. Ned, who was leaning against it, fell flat on his face. “Good grief, Zaragoza!” Puck exclaimed as Ned groaned at his feet. ”Can’t you just ring the doorbell like a normal person?” “Where’s my girlfriend?” Ned demanded as he scrambled to his feet. “You mean your ex-girlfriend?” Puck asked in a deceptively mild tone. “Ex-girlfriend?” Ned turned to the shorter young man in righteous

indignation. ”Look here, Henstridge.” He drew himself up to his full height of six-foot-two and stared Puck down. ”I don’t know what you’re playing at, but I don’t like it.” “And I don’t like what you were caught doin’, either,” Puck replied frostily, blue eyes fearlessly meeting Ned’s glare. Angrily, Ned grabbed Puck by the front of his pajamas and shoved him against the wall. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Ned demanded between clenched teeth.

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“What you’re doin’ right now,” Puck grunted in a goading tone. ”Is that howhe wanted you to take him? Roughly? Did he ask to be punished before orafter he put your wee pecker in his mouth?” Ned suddenly dropped him, shrinking back in horror. “How did you…” he gasped. Ginger ran forward to Puck’s side. “Are you all right?” she asked him worriedly. “Aye, I’m fine. Ye needn’t worry, ma love.” He eyed Ned grimly. ”I can take him.” “Come away from him, Ginger,” Ned commanded her. “What for?” she snapped back indignantly. “Come here!” he roared at her, grabbing her by an arm. Ginger pulled away angrily. “You don’t own me, Ned!” she screamed at him. “See here: that’s why I don’t want you hanging around these losers!” Ned shouted back, pointing an accusing finger around at her bandmates. “Losers?!” all four declared, enraged. “Thanks to them, you turn into an uppity bitch!” Ned rambled on. ”I want my women good and obedient, so you’d better behave!” “Behave?! What the hell do you take me for? Some slave?” Ned hit her across her face with the back of his hand, knocking her to the floor. Puck quickly came to her aid and saw blood at a corner of her lips. Very little blood, come to think of it, but enough to set his brain on fire. Puck gently steered Ginger over to Argie, then lunged right at Ned with fists clenched. “What sort of monster are you?” he roared as he knocked the taller man to the floor with a well-aimed blow to the chin. ”Didn’t your mam teach you ne’er to hit a woman?” Being just five-foot-seven, pale of face, and rather slightly built, it was easy to underestimate Puck Henstridge’s capabilities in a fight. However, his friends 63

had known for a long time what Ned was just learning that day: Puck had been captain of the martial arts varsity in both high school and college. Plus, he had black belts in both karate and aikido. “Don’t you ever let me catch you anywhere around my Ginger ever again!” he snarled at Ned, punctuating each word with a punch or a kick. “And he’s feverish at the moment?” Argie marveled. “Ned’s just lucky he didn’t catch Puck on one of his good days,” Joey shrugged. ”Otherwise, he’d be dead by now.” “Yeah, I guess I’d be doing the medical examiner thing by now and we’d have to call in a funeraria,” Kei chuckled. He knelt beside Ginger and checked her busted lip. ”Joey, grab some ice from the freezer - STAT!” +++ “Sometimes I think it’s a blessing that Ginger lives just a couple buildings away from our office, but times like these I wish she was safe back at our house!” Fred and his two younger sons, twins Louis and Charles, went sprinting across the street from their office to Ginger’s building. arrived about the same time as Alastair Henstridge. “What are you doing here?” each man asked of the other. “Ginger’s soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend’s on a rampage,” Fred explained. “Och, that is nae good,” Alastair declared. ”Robin’s here. He spent the night with Ginger.” Fred managed a weak smile. ”One of these days, my friend, we have to tell those two to make permanent arrangements on that score,” he said. “Aye,” Alastair replied, a faint twinkle in his blue eyes. ”We might speak o’ that sooner than ye think.” “I’d appreciate that,” Fred replied gratefully, shaking his old friend’s hand. ”In the meantime…” “In the meantime, let’s head upstairs - or else ma lad will nae leave anythin’ for us to bury!” +++ 64 To their surprise, they

Ned pleaded for mercy, but Puck refused to let him up. The latter turned to Ginger and his heart sank when he saw her bruised cheek and swollen lip. “If ye want me to stop, lass…” he began. “No, love,” Ginger managed a small but affectionate smile even as she pressed the ice pack Joey had given her to her lip. ”Carry on; I’ve texted in the cavalry.” The door suddenly burst open. stormed in, the twins in their wake. “Well, Fred,” Alastair declared at seeing Ned’s bloody face. ”Seems like the lad has everythin’ under control.” “Leave him be now, Robin,” Fred told Puck. He drew nearer and stood over the fallen Ned, his face grim. ”The twins and I will take it from here.” Puck stopped pummeling Ned as he looked up. When Fred nodded, he simply rose and went to sit on the floor next to Ginger’s armchair. “We should’ve guessed you’d run over here when you bolted from your cube,” Charles declared coldly, standing beside his father. Louis, on the other hand, held up a compact disc and threw Ned a look of sheer disgust. “You honestly think those camera orbs are just for show?” he sneered at Ned. ”Think again.” “Zaragoza, you’re fired,” Fred informed him, a satisfied smirk on his face. “You can’t fire me!” Ned shrieked. employees!” Fred glared threateningly at him. ”Best-performing?” he shot back. ”Damn it, Zaragoza! Your team has had to cover up for every single mistake you’ve made! JICA and the UNDP want me to throw your ass out! This current scandal notwithstanding, I have every reason to fire you.” “But I’m marrying your daughter!” Coming from Ned, it almost sounded like a wail. “Are you crazy?!” both Puck and Ginger exclaimed in chorus. “Spare me, Zaragoza!” Fred snarled. ”You accept blowjobs from male interns and still expect anyone to believe you when you say that?!” He nodded curtly to his sons. ”Get this piece of shit out of my sight, boys.” 65 ”I’m one of your best-performing Fred Algarme and Alastair Henstridge

“Yes, Dad,” the twins chorused, brusquely frog-marching a feebly protesting Ned out of the flat between them. “Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say,” Alastair declared when they had gone. “Dad!” Ginger exclaimed, half-rising from her seat. ”Uncle Alastair! Fred quickly enveloped his only daughter in a bear hug. ”Are you all right?” he demanded. ”Did that idiot hurt you?” “He did, but…” “Why that scumball! I’ll…” “Dad, you saw how Puck clobbered the crap out of him for me.” Alastair grinned and rested a hand on his son’s shoulder. ”Aye,” he chuckled. ”And a fine bollixing did ma lad give him!” Fred let Ginger go and turned to Puck. The young man had gone pale as he rose to his feet, but he held his ground and met the older man’s gaze calmly. Fred studied him for a moment, then grinned and roughly embraced him. “I knew you’d come through for my Ginger someday!” he crowed delightedly. “Was nae problem, Tito Fred,” Puck replied with a faint smile. ”Anyone who hurts the lass answers to me.” Sheepishly, he added, “Well, that’s if ye dinna mind.” Fred turned to Alastair who merely grinned and shrugged. Turning back to Puck, Fred squeezed the young man’s hand. “Since when have I ever minded?” he asked. He narrowed his eyes at both the Henstridges. ”I would suppose you gentlemen will be dropping by the house for a dram or two soon?” Puck turned to his father; the latter smiled and patted his shoulder with a nod. “Aye,” the young man replied simply, but his heart was in his eyes when he looked at Ginger. “And that’s finally settled,” Argie laughed. “Not quite,” Ginger chimed in. “Not quite?” “What’s wrong, love?” Puck asked her. 66

“Nothing’s wrong, Puck,” she assured him. ”It’s just that there’s still one more thing to settle.” “What’s that?” Fred asked her. “Not what, Daddy: who,” Ginger corrected him with a sweet little smile. ”Who else? Puck’s ex Lucille!” Everyone simply stared at her in growing horror. +++ When men pick fights, they usually get started by a single spark - say, a callous insult - and rapidly escalates into a full-on melee which eventually runs out of steam and people forget why they were fighting in the first place. Women, on the other hand, are more subtle. Well, intelligent women, anyway. Lesser women are no better than men, seeing how they screech like harpies and fly into the faces of their enemies at a perceived insult. In Ginger’s case, she calmly advised Puck to be nice to his soon-to-be exgirlfriend until such time that she could actually put her revenge into motion. And thus it was that a week passed. Then Puck invited Lucille to dinner at Maison Reine-Claude. +++ “There you are, baby!” Exuberantly, pop star Lucille Natividad - known to the general public only by her first name - smacked loud kisses on Puck’s pale cheeks. “Hello, Lucille,” Puck greeted her simply. “Did you miss me while you were in Singapore?” she cooed, easing herself onto his lap despite the fact that they were in a public place. Around them, the other diners did not seem to mind her scandalous behavior. Or so Lucille thought. The thing about Lucille was that she became Puck’s girlfriend by default after he ended up sleeping with her after a drunken night out with the guys. He’d wanted out, only Lucille dug her claws into him and stuck like a barnacle. She exulted in the fact that she was the main reason why Ginger Algarme left Reckless Imprudence. in Lucille’s opinion, a ridiculously rich and titled 67

guy like Puck didn’t need some bad-tempered, bossy-booted bitch in his life. Besides, Lucille quite fancied the possibility of becoming a noblewoman in the United Kingdom; it came so close to her childhood dream of becoming a fairy-tale princess. Puck smiled ironically as Lucille fawned over him. It was her fault that his longstanding friendship with Ginger nearly came to a disastrous end. Seriously insulted that the whiny popstar wannabe went out of her way to make her life miserable, Ginger left the band and began dating Ned Zaragoza just to spite her best friend. If it hadn’t been for Argie, the split would have been permanent. But the blond guitarist practically moved heaven and earth to bring his friends back together. Thanks to him, Puck and Ginger grew even closer, relying on each other even more as their respective partners began to show their true colors. As Lucille babbled annoyingly into Puck’s ear, he caught sight of Ginger and Argie smirking at him through the restaurant’s order window. He smirked back and winked. “Actually, dear, I was so caught up with the concert prep in Singapore that I didn’t get you anything,” Puck said mildly. He narrowed his eyes at her. ”Come to think of it, I didn’t think to bother.” Lucille pulled back from him, startled by this declaration. She stared at him for a bit, then burst out giggling. “Oh, baby!” she squealed. ”You’re such a kidder!” Puck’s expression grew angry and he pushed her off his lap. “I’m not kidding,” he snapped at her. ”I didn’t miss you in Singapore. After the way you bitched in Hong Kong, I’m sick of you!” “What… What are you talking about?” Lucille gasped, sprawled as she was rather awkwardly on the floor. “You think I didn’t see what you did when I got back home? You think I don’t know what you did in my flat while I was away?” Lucilled went pale and suddenly backed away. ”No!” she cried. ”I didn’t do anything! I was alone! I was waiting for you!” “You lying slut,” he hissed angrily at her. ”You weren’t alone.”

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The other patrons kept eating or talking - but Puck noted that eyes were rolling their way, ears were perked up. The “patrons” were actually reporters from the big networks, broadsheets, and magazines. Microrecorders at every table took in every word; strategically placed cameras caught every action as it happened. “I was alone!” Lucille insisted. ”I swear, baby: I was alone!” “No, you weren’t.” Lucille looked up and saw Ginger come in with a laptop in her hands. She regarded the fallen pop star gravely as she set the computer on the table. ”I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but Puck switches on the security cameras in his flat whenever he’s out of the country.” Lucille’s eyes widened in horror at that. Ginger played back the security footage. Lucille and three men started the evening drinking beer. Then one man took out a baggie of what appeared to be weed and some rolling papers. The drinking session turned into a pot session which eventually turned into a sickening sexual free-for-all. Enraged by this expose, Lucille flew at Ginger, meaning to scratch her face with her long fingernails. Ginger, however, was ready for the attack. She grabbed Lucille by a wrist and, with a barely perceptible movement, twisted it hard. Lucille screamed in pain at that, and then screamed louder when she saw policemen coming into the restaurant. “I believe drug possession and use are punishable by law,” Ginger remarked coolly as the cops tried to cuff Lucille. “You bitch!” Lucille screeched, spitting at Ginger’s face and missing. ”What ever does my boyfriend see in you? You’re just a short, fat cook! I’m a star!” Suddenly, all the patrons roared in disagreement. Before long, flashbulbs were popping in Lucille’s startled face. “You’re just a local hack,” one reporter snickered evilly. ”Ginger’s a global superstar.” “And fat?” Puck exclaimed in disbelief as Ginger exchanged a look with him. He shrugged and merely grinned.

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Deliberately, Ginger doffed her chef’s jacket to reveal that she wore a snug black tank top underneath. Her arms were beautifully toned, her waist small in comparison to her shapely hips and bosom. In fact, she was so beautifully built that Puck just couldn’t take his eyes off her. “Bottom to top: 36-25-38.” Ginger smiled and took a deep breath that further boosted her shapely breasts. ”38C, to be exact, and no thanks to some skanky plastic surgeon.” “You sure aren’t fat,” Puck breathed admiringly. “Thanks, love.” Ginger fondly kissed his cheek. She slung her jacket back on and sashayed back to the kitchen. ”Bye, Lucille.” Lucille suddenly broke away from the cop who was still trying to cuff her, grabbed a knife off the table, and dashed towards Ginger’s retreating back. “Ginge, look out!” Puck shouted, lunging at Lucille. But Ginger spun around and her fist caught Lucille square on her chin. There was a loud crack and Lucille’s eyes glazed over from the blow. She fell in a heap on the floor. “Ow,” Ginger winced, shaking the hand that hit Lucille. “Are ye all right?” Puck asked worriedly. “Yeah,” she replied, letting him put an arm about her waist. Puck studied the inert form of his former girlfriend for a bit. Then he nodded to the police. “Take her away,” he said. +++ “Argie, I need your help.” Later that night, when Ginger had gone to bed as she was so tired, Puck went next door to the Spencers to ask for Argie’s advice. “Ninong!” Gabriel and Raphael exclaimed, running to Puck as soon as he came in. “Och, but you wee lads are growing so big!” He went down on one knee to hug the little ones and would have gladly played with them if Ditas hadn’t mentioned that little boys should already be in bed. 70

“I’ll join you guys soon as the boys are asleep,” she told Puck. Turning to her sons, she said, “Go kiss Dada good night, darlings.” “Dada! Dada!” Argie smiled as he picked up each boy and smacked a loud kiss on their little foreheads. Puck smiled at that and thought that maybe someday he could be just as good a father to his own children. He had few doubts that Ginger would become a wonderful mother. “So, what’d you want advice for?” Argie asked as he went to the small minibar in the living room. “Well, I was plannin’ to ask Ginge to marry me,’ Puck admitted as he accepted a bottle of Cerveza Negra from his friend. “And you’re stumped for a romantic way for it?” “Aye,” he sighed after a swallow of dark beer. “But, mate: if it hadn’t been for you, my own proposal would have been so pedestrian!” “Well, it’s one thing to plan for someone else. But it’s a completely different kettle o’ fish now!” “Dinner for two, then?” “Uh, now that’s pedestrian.” “Have the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra serenade her?” “Seriously, I considered that. But their sked’s kinda tight.” “Aw, shoot. That’s another idea down.” They spent the next few minutes tossing ideas back and forth, but couldn’t seem to decide on anything. When Ditas came out of the boys’ bedroom, Puck seemed to be ready to shoot himself in despair. “It’s Saturday tomorrow, right?” she said as she accepted a gin-and-tonic from Argie. “Yeah, why’d you ask?” Argie asked. “Why don’t we go to Dangwa and pick out a few dozen roses?” Ditas suggested, looking intently at Puck. “Deetz, Argie and I already threw the ‘flowers and candy’ theme out the window,” Puck said plaintively. 71

“Whoever said anything about flowers and candy, pare? I was thinking of something else…” Shameless.” “Shameless?” Puck asked, not liking the way she said the word. “Shame…” Argie’s eyes widened as he looked at Puck. He burst into laughter as the idea sank into his head. “What’s so funny?” Puck exclaimed, growing increasingly confused. “Well, you’re short, pasty-faced, and Scots!” Argie exclaimed. “What’s that got to do with what I’m worried about?” Husband and wife turned to each other; they both grinned. “James McAvoy,” Ditas remarked innocently. ”James McAvoy in Shameless.” “What about James McAvoy in Shameless?” “Didn’t you catch the episode with him, the beat-up van, and the roses?” Argie asked him. Puck frowned at that, racking his brains to remember. Ginger had the full first three seasons of the British television show on DVD and he remembered being forced to watch it with her on some evenings in the past. And there wasone episode in particular where… Puck’s eyes widened in sheer and absolute horror at the thought. “Are you two out of your fookin’ minds?!” he screeched, appalled by the idea. “I should think it’s perfect for the two of you,” Argie remarked smugly. “Chillax, pare,” Ditas soothed Puck, patting him on one seriously blushing cheek. ”Go on home. We’ll pick you up at five AM.” Ditas narrowed her eyes at him. ”Something, ah,

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Just Desserts “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” The Reverend Monsignor Alfred Henry Kaimo-Algarme, Jr., rector of one of the better-known diocesan seminaries in the country and author of many inspirational tomes, grinned hugely when he heard that heavy, all-too familiar Scots burr on the other side of the confessional. In light of recent events in the family circle, this confession was going to be quite interesting. “And when was your last confession, my son?” he asked. The answer came as barely more than an abashed whisper: “Five years ago, Father. I’m sorry, but I was so ashamed o’ what I did that could nae bring myself to the confessional.” “Ah, but whatever it was you’ve done, God will forgive you,” Henry reminded the young man, his deep voice gentle yet stern. ”Even if men condemn you, God will still forgive you.” “Aye, I believe that. But…” And here, the young man drew a deep breath to steady his trembling voice. ”But it’s pretty bad, Father.” “Better ‘fess up, my son. Best to get it off your chest already.” “I broke ma best friend’s heart by gettin’ drunk an’ gettin’ laid by a strange woman.” There was a sigh. ”I wanted to make it all up to ma best friend, but that woman wouldnae let me go.” “So I heard,” Henry rumbled. ”But rumor has it said woman’s out of your life now.” He chuckled. ”The grapevine tells me your best friend took care of that.” “Aye, ‘tis true, Father.” “So now all is well between you and your best friend.” It was a statement, not a question.

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“Aye, but Father: what happened wi’ the strange woman was also the reason why I did nae go to kirk these past five years - barrin’ ma birthday, Christmas, Easter, New Year’s, and ma poor mam’s anniversaries, God rest her soul.” Henry sighed. Oh, boy… “An’ I smoked like a chimney, swore like a sailor, an’ I beat up ma best friend’s boyfriend last week - but only ‘cause he hit her.” Henry grunted at that. ”That was perfectly justifiable,” he remarked approvingly. ”God forgive me, but I wish you’d called me up.” “Your dad said ye wanted to burn the man at the stake!” came the rather accusing reply. “Yeah,” Henry laughed ruefully. ”So I did.” “I’d say ‘twas a waste o’ kindlin’ an’ lighter fluid - or matches.” “True,” Henry agreed. ”Anything else?” “Um, that’s about it.” “Very well…” Henry paused to think a bit. Then, “All I ask is that you spend the rest of your life keeping your best friend happy.” “I will, Father. That’s a promise.” “However,” and Henry said this in an ominous tone, “if I hear you’ve made her cry for any wrong reason whatsoever, I swear to God I will sort you out proper. Do I make myself clear, Robin Andrew Henstridge?” There was a rather frightened gulp and a shaky, “Yes, Father.” Henry smiled. ”You’ll also attend Mass every Sunday from here on out. Now say the Act of Contrition,” he admonished Puck as he pronounced the absolution and made the Sign of the Cross. ”I surmise you’re going to lunch with me, then?” “Aye, Kuya Henry.” “Well, in which case, we can talk more once I’m done here. Is there anyone else waiting to make a confession?” “Argie’s on the other side of the booth, Kuya.” 74

“All right; I’ll listen to him and then we can go. In the meantime, go say a decade of the Rosary.” “Okay, thanks.” Henry closed the screen on that side of the confessional, and opened the other. “In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Amen.” “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Argie Spencer murmured in his crisp English accent. ”My last confession was three months ago before we went on tour.” “Okay, go on.” “There’s not much to tell, Father. Except I looped an amp cable around our spare bassist’s ankle, making him fall off the stage on the last night of the Hong Kong leg of the tour.” Henry’s eyes widened at that. “Argyll Theodore Spencer!” he bellowed in shock. ”You mean to say you did that on purpose?!” There was a rather sheepish cough. Then, “Father, what the hell - if you’ll excuse the term - was I supposed to do? It was the one way I could bring Ginger back to bring her and Puck together once and for all!” +++ Puck was just finishing up the Rosary decade Ginger’s eldest brother ordered him to say when said eldest brother stepped out of the confessional practically laughing his head off. Argie, on the other hand, stepped out of the other side of the booth, his face rather red with mingled shame and mirth. Puck raised an eyebrow as Henry sat down in the pew in front of him.

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“No, I’m not telling you,” the husky cleric teased his incipient brother-in-law. ”Secrecy of the confessional and all that. Just live with the fact that you owe Argie big time.” “No, he doesn’t,” Argie quickly corrected him. ”I was actually paying him back for a favor he and Ginger did for me years ago.” “Well, you sure paid him back - in spades, if I may add.” Puck crossed himself and put his rosary back into his pocket. ”Shall we go?” he asked them. “Yep, you boys head down to the lobby. I’ll go grab the car.” “You look as pale as a sheet,” Argie commented as he and Puck went down the chapel steps to the seminary lobby. Puck yawned and eyed his friend sleepily. ”You try bein’ dragged out o’ your nice, warm bed at three in the mornin’,” he remarked tartly. “I think it’s more like ‘you try being dragged away from your nice, warm girlfriend’,” Argie snickered back. Puck managed to blush at that. ”Well, there’s that, too,” he admitted. When he saw the rather wicked grin on his friend’s face, he had to protest. ”Get yer mind out o’ the gutter, mate!” he exclaimed. ”Nothin’ o’ the sort’s happened between me an’ Ginger!”

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“You mean nothing of the sort’s happened yet.” Puck winced at that. It was a seriously disturbing thing to think about in the lobby of a seminary. “Nothing till tonight, I would think,” Argie continued with a huge grin. Puck rolled his eyes and groaned. He didn’t want to think about it just yet and for the love of God, they were in the lobby of a seminary! “Where’s Ginge off to today?” Argie asked him. “Gone over to help Heck Maravilla at the Uni Fair today,” Puck replied, referring to the annual university fair at their alma mater. ”The lassies got the tea-an’-cake concession. Well, chocolate and cake, to be exact.” “Knowing those two, they’ll make a killing. Think of it, mate: mug of hot Mexican chocolate with cinnamon with one of Ginger’s rose-cream eclairs?” “Mouth-waterin’,” Puck sighed dreamily. ”Or a slice o’ Midsummer Night’s Dream and a hot choc laced wi’ cognac!” He glared at Argie. ”An’, thanks to ye an’ yer wife, I did nae get to sample any o’ those treats ‘cause ye dragged me away so early!” A thought occurred to him at that point. ”Say, whereis Ditas goin’? She opted nae to come wi’ us.” “Took the boys to the doctor for their check-up and the dogs for their shots.” “Oh, so she’s taken our Angus along, too?” “Angus is staying with us tonight,” Argie reminded him as they sighted Henry’s car, an old-school Mustang that had been the Monsignor’s pet project since he was in high school, rolling into the driveway. ”Plus, Deetz is going to fix up your flat for tonight.” “Puck!” Henry called as he rolled down the window. ”Pinch your cheeks, boy!” “What?” Puck asked, feeling more than a little bewildered. “Pinch your cheeks - you’re as pale as a corpse!” +++ The University Fair at Fernando Amorsolo University was an event a lot of people looked forward to because of the wide variety of wares sold and the 77

entertainment offered - all of which were certainly several cuts above even those of UP, La Salle, and Ateneo. After all, what was the point of being ranked #2 among the world’s best universities if you did anything shoddily? This year, it was the sweets concession that caused a stir among students, faculty, alumni, and outsiders as it was going to be held jointly by alumnae Heck Maravilla (Public Relations, 1997) and Ginger Algarme (European Studies, 1997) who respectively owned the bespoke sweetshops Bitter/Sweet and La Reinette. To add luster to their already sterling reputation, Heck was bassist for the J-rock band Scarlet Faction and Ginger for the more global Reckless Imprudence. Throw in the recent gossip involving Ginger and the cake stall was definitely going to draw in the most people. But gossip notwithstanding, the cake stall set up in the University gymnasium could draw up enough attention on its own. Displayed in portable freezer cases, epergnes, and trays was a dizzying selection of edible temptations. Heck provided an extensive array of chocolate truffles, squares, bars, mendiants, and nibbling selections, as well as tall samovars of hot chocolate spruced up with spices or homemade syrups.

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Not to be outdone, Ginger dished up macarons in goodness only knew how many flavor combinations; sweet roulades - cake rolls - in coffee and butterscotch, chocolate and salted caramel, mango and almond; dark chocolate glazed eclairs filled with green tea, rose, lavender, sampaguita, or vanilla creme patisserie; all sorts of cookies; fruit tarts of every stripe; and the usual French litany of pains au chocolat, triangles aux amandes, fruitfilled torsades, and plump religieuses. Finally, there was the piece de resistence, a Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was a magnificent frozen confection that was a cross between a frozen brazo de Mercedes and a sans rival. It involved thinnish slabs of almond meringue layered with custard, Ginger’s home-churned rose ice cream, and her homemade rose-petal jam. The top was finished off with candied rose petals and slivers of roasted almond. The resulting dessert was creamy and chewy, floral and nutty, sweet yet subtly so.

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Heck smiled as she watched her friend plate up slices of the frozen dessert, remembering the first time she made it just after they graduated from college. It had been a birthday cake for their friend Puck Henstridge, specifically created for him after he polished off a bowl of Eton mess she’d made with some leftover rose petal jelly because there was no strawberry jam left. It had since become a bestseller at Ginger’s store. “Puck is going to go bonkers over that,” she teased Ginger as the latter sent off the customers. “He always does,” Ginger replied with a warm smile. ”I did, however, forget to tell him that I made a tray of it just for him and that it’s in the freezer at home.” “Well, I think you can tell him all about it.” Heck pointed to the young man in question who was making a beeline for the cake stall. ”Here he comes.” “Hallo, lassies,” Puck greeted him, his smile fey and playful. He kissed Heck’s cheek before kissing Ginger in a rather passionate fashion. Argie and Ginger’s big brother Henry came up and the latter coughed meaningfully, raising an eyebrow at Puck. “Och, sorry, monsignor,” Puck apologized, playfully. “What are you three doing here?” Ginger asked them as she hugged her brother. “We thought about picking up a few snacks to eat on the way to Alabang,” Henry replied, beaming at his sister. “You’re going there for lunch,” Ginger reminded him. appetites.” “Since when has that ever happened?” all three exclaimed in protest. “So, what’ll it be, gents?” Heck asked them. “Mexican chocolate and an almond triangle,” Henry replied, plunking some money on the counter. “A choc frappe and - “ “And a dozen mango cookies,” Ginger finished for Argie. ”You’re lucky I have them in stock.” She turned to her partner. ”And for you, my dear viscount?” ”You’ll ruin your

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Puck looked over the ladies’ wares and pouted a little when he saw that his favorite dessert didn’t seem to be on display. Ginger, however, took the hint and took a personal tray of Midsummer Night’s Dream out of a chiller for him. “You’re a real darlin’, ma love!” he sighed gratefully as he paid for the tray. “You didn’t have to get one, you know,” Ginger whispered into his ear as she handed him a small plastic spoon. ”There’s a whole tray of it at home.” “Aye, but it’s a whole hour till lunch,” Puck declared plaintively, pouting a little. “There’s just no reasoning with you,” Ginger laughed as she kissed him. “Hot chocolate with that, milord?” Heck suggested teasingly. “Aye, the kind ye make wi’ cognac - if it’s available, seein’ how we’re in school.” He winked at her. ”Otherwise, make it a cinnamon hot choc, extradark, if you please.” “Coming right up!” “You sure you don’t want to come along?” Henry asked his sister between bites of pastry. Ginger shook her head. ”I’d be scared to death,” she admitted. ”No girl wants to hear her family trading her like a cow.” She grinned at Puck. ”Even if said trade was apparently discussed ages ago and said cow is more than willing to be traded.” “You’re a vicountess, love,” Puck corrected her, putting an arm about her waist. ”At least, you will be one soon - and you’re definitely not a cow.” Heck handed Puck his hot chocolate. ”Here you go, Puck,” she said. “Thanks, Heck. How are Torch and the rest o’ your band?” “We’re touring next month,” Heck replied, grinning. ”Unless you and Ginge tell us otherwise.” She nudged Ginger in the ribs. ”Isn’t that right, Ginger?” “Och, ye’d better do some postponin’!” Puck suggested, sliding a meaningful glance at Ginger. Ginger said nothing, but merely raised an eyebrow at him. “I’ll see ye tonight,” Puck murmured as he hugged his girlfriend.

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“Okay,” she replied. She hugged her brother and Argie. ”Tell Mom, Dad, and Uncle Alastair hi for me.” When they had gone, Ginger narrowed her eyes at them. “He’s up to something,” she remarked to Heck. Heck laughed at that. ”I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said. +++

“Hi, Ninang Georgie,” Puck greeted Georgia Algarme at the front door. “Robin dear,” Georgia replied, kissing her godson on his cheek. She gave him a hug, then pulled back a bit to look him over. ”You’re so pale!” she exclaimed. “Ninang, I’ve always been pale!” Puck protested as he followed her to the dining room. ”Say, is my dad here now?” A cold soda can was pressed into his hand as he entered the dining room. Puck turned to see his father grinning at him. “Hi, Dad,” Puck greeted him with a hug. “Is nae Ginge comin’?” Alastair asked him. “Nae, Dad. She’s handlin’ the cake stand at the Uni Fair; says hullo though.” Puck held up the can he’d been given and raised an eyebrow. Ginger ale.

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Probably ‘cause the lass herself is nae here, he thought. He slid a glance at the can in his father’s hand: a diet cola. Okay… “Will ye go ring-shoppin’ wi’ me later, Dad?” Puck asked quietly. Alastair stared at him, seemingly amused. He fished a tiny velvet box from his blazer pocket and handed it to Puck. “Your Mam and I talked about it ere she died,” he explained, tears beginning to mist his eyes. ”She had the Sight, you see. She knew this was comin’ sooner or later.” Alastair smiled sadly; Puck knew he still missed his wife despite all the years - and would probably never stop missing her. ”Ere she died, Grisie told me to give this to ye soon as ye asked Ginger to marry ye.” “Dad!” Puck exclaimed in protest as Alastair opened the box to reveal Grizel Balfour-Henstridge’s triple-sapphire engagement ring.

“Dad, this is Mam’s ring!” he protested, close to tears himself, remembering how the ring had looked on his beloved mother’s hand. ”I can get Ginger something else.” “‘Tis your Mam who wants her to have it.” The tone Alastair used brooked no nonsense. He closed the box and placed it in the palm of Puck’s free hand. ”Remember what she used to say whenever Ginger was o’er at our house?” Puck gulped and turned away, leaning against the sill of the window that looked out into the Algarme’s huge side garden where he’d played as a child. “Aye,” he said softly. ”You’re like ma own wee lass, Ginger-sweetie. I wish you were ours.”

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“O’ course, ye cannae be ours ‘cause you’ve your mam and dad,” Alastair continued. ”And her voice would just trail off and she’d look at you. Then she’d tell Ginger…” “But in a way, ye are mine an’ I love ye as much as I love ma own wee lad,” Puck said, his voice catching. The tears began to fall, but Puck felt no shame at feeling such emotion. He roughly embraced his father and cried. ”I wish Mam were here,” he sobbed. becomin’ family wi’ us.” “Aye,” Alastair agreed, his own voice thick with emotion. He handed Puck a handkerchief. ”Wipe those tears away, lad. I can hear your Uncle Fred comin’ in.” Fred Algarme came into the room, arm in arm with his wife. He regarded Puck with concern. “Are you all right, hijo?” he asked. “I’m okay, Tito Fred,” Puck replied, smiling. ”A touch o’ nerves is all.” He drew himself up - which wasn’t really much because both Fred and his father were six feet tall. The twins and Argie came in, and all three cleared the floor at six-foot-two; and the monsignor towered over them all at six-foot-four. But height wasn’t going to intimidate Puck. As if a dam had broken within him, the words just came spilling out. “Tito Fred, whether you like it or not, I want to marry your daughter. I know I didn’t do right by her the first time an’ screwed it all up big time, but I intend to make up for it.” He looked over at Henry who simply nodded at him. ”I intend to spend the rest of my life making it up to her.” Puck drew a deep breath. ”An’ if I screw up again, ye and the lads…” “Don’t forget me, son,” his father muttered. ”She would’ve been so happy at Ginge

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“Aye, all o’ ye an’ ma own dad can beat the shite out o’ me.” Puck’s heart was in his deep blue eyes as he spoke. ”If she’ll hae me, I’ll ne’er disappoint Ginger - an’ any bairns we may have.” Fred and Georgia looked at each other, then looked at him. The latter smiled, clapped her hands, and rushed forward to embrace him. “I can’t see any reason why we should say no,” Fred remarked, smiling. He held his hand out to Puck. ”Welcome to the family, son - though that’s been pretty much a foregone conclusion.” “So Ginge said this mornin’,” Puck laughed as he shook hands, relieved. “So,” Louis chimed in as he and Charles came forward to shake their brotherin-law’s hand. ”When are you proposing?” Puck went very pale at that point. Because of all the emotion of the moment, he’d completely forgotten that things weren’t over just yet. “Tonight,” he replied weakly. “Well, I hope it’s something romantic,” Charles teased him. “Ginger deserves nothing less,” Henry rumbled in agreement. Argie suddenly burst into nearly hysterical laughter at that while Puck sank shakily into the nearest chair. +++ Ding! Ginger sighed in relief as the elevator stopped on the 30th floor. It had been a long, exhausting day, but nevertheless a fulfilling one. She and Heck had raised nearly a hundred and fifty thousand pesos for the university scholarship fund. It’s a good thing both our shops are close enough to campus, she thought, smiling to herself as the elevator doors opened. Otherwise, we’d have been short on stock by noon! She stepped out of the elevator and was surprised to see roses scattered down the length of the hallway leading to the door of her flat. Looking down, she saw her name on a folded slip of paper attached to the first rose. Picking it up, she saw that it was a note from Puck. 85

Ginger-love, Just follow the trail of roses. I’ll explain later. xoxo Puck

Intrigued, Ginger followed the trail, picking up the long-stemmed blossoms as she went. She also noticed that while the first one was white, each succeeding rose was pink and the colors deepened until she got to the door where the last one was a deep crimson. Friendship to passion? she thought, amused by the idea. When she unlocked the door, however, there were even more roses on the floor. Plus, she could hear music playing and the tune made her smile. Debussy’s Clair de Lune, she thought, remembering their senior year in high school when Puck played the piece for the play Forever in English class. The air was heady with the scent of roses even as she walked to her bedroom door which was, interestingly, slightly ajar. I wonder which of the gang put him up to this? she thought. bit outré even for Puck, and… She pushed the bedroom door and found Puck lying on the bed. It’s a

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Lying on the bed naked save for a bouquet of roses, to be exact. Ginger grinned at him and put the roses she’d collected on the hope chest in the corner. “And to what do I owe this pleasure?” she asked him, smirking rather mischievously as she sat at the foot of the bed. “Well, I thought you might want a bit o’ a treat, seein’ how ye an’ Heck worked so hard all day today,” he replied, wiggling his eyebrows at her. “Really?” “Aye. Oh, and there’s somethin’ else…” He sat up carefully, so as not to disturb the bouquet covering his nether regions. Taking a small velvet box off the side table, he patted the bed, beckoning Ginger to sit beside him. She scooted up and rested her head on his bare shoulder. “What is it?” she asked him. “Here.” With a shaking hand, he opened the box and held it out to her. Ginger’s eyes widened. She gasped at what she saw. “Puck, this is… This is Aunt Grisie’s ring!” “Aye,” he agreed. ”Apparently, Mam wanted ye to hae it ‘fore she died. Ginge…” He looked at her, almost frightened in his nervousness. ”Ginge, I know I screwed up. I knew I nearly messed things up for good and I’m sorry and…” Ginger pressed a finger to his lips to quell him. “I know you’re sorry,” she reminded him. ”I’ve forgiven you.” She lowered her gaze worriedly. ”I’m sorry, too.” “For what?”

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“I dated Ned to spite you for dating Lucille,” Ginger admitted, lowering her head in shame. ”I was mad at you; I was mad at myself! I know it was an immature thing to do, but…” He kissed her to silence her. “We were kids, love,” he reminded her. ”We did nae know any better then. At least we know better now.” He chucked a finger under her chin and tilted her face up so their eyes met. ”I’m not perfect,” he admitted. ”God knows you deserve better; heck, you deserve the best. But…” He held up the ring. ”But if ye want me, if you’ll hae me, I shan’t e’er disappoint ye.” Ginger flung her arms about his neck and kissed him seriously, letting him feel how much she loved him. “I take it that’s a yes then?” he murmured. “What do you think, Robin Henstridge?” He grinned and carefully slipped his mother’s ring on her finger. They were both surprised and pleased to see that it fit perfectly. Grinning impishly, Puck held the bouquet of roses to her. ”These are for you,” he informed her, winking. ”So’s the rest o’ me, come to think o’ it.” With one eyebrow raised speculatively, Ginger looked him over. She handed the bouquet back and kissed him. “I’ll just go freshen up,” she said, half-jumping off the bed and dashing to the bathroom. She grinned at him. ”And then I’ll have the rest of you.”

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Coffee and Liqueurs “Um, can I ask just one favor of you?” she asked when she rejoined him after her bath.

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He sat up, silently admiring her beauty in the moonlight that streamed into the room. “Anything,” he assured her. She blushed - even in the faint light, he could tell she was blushing - and shyly averted her gaze as she slid onto the bed beside him. “Be gentle, please,” she whispered into his ear, her hands resting on his forearms. ”Um, I’ve never done it before.” “What?!” He stared at her in consternation. How was it that his best friend, this incredibly passionate, even sensual woman before him, was still… ”You mean… You… No? Not even with Ned?” Ginger shook her head and managed a rueful smile. ”No,” she admitted. ”I have no idea why, though - it’s not like he didn’t try to get into my pants. But it was, I think…” She drew closer to him and he could smell that fragrance that had always seemed specific to her: peppermint, roses, a faint hint of candied ginger and vanilla. ”I think I was holding out; I was waiting for you.” “Oh, Ginger…” +++

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Puck mumbled something unintelligible as he buried his face in Ginger’s hair even as he nuzzled the back of her neck. Truth be told, he’d dreaded the prospect of this encounter, the one act that would forever change the dynamic of their friendship into something much deeper, more intimate, and permanent. Once, he feared that it would pull them apart, that it would drive a wedge between them. Now, however, he realized he’d been afraid of shadows. He smiled as he pulled her closer to him as they lay together, skin against skin. lips. “Well?” Ginger murmured without turning to face him. Puck knew, however, that both her hands rested on the arm he’d wrapped around her waist. “Well what?” She wriggled in his embrace to face him, an eyebrow raised. He sighed as his free hand gently traced the contours of her face. He knew what that unspoken question was. “Ginge, there’s no comparison,” he assured her, truthfully. ”I was drunk when it happened between me an’ that…” No! He was not - he would never utter that hateful woman’s name in their bed! ”And it never happened again. I fled over to you when she tried to make a play for me.” Ginger chuckled at that as she kissed him. ”You make me happy, Puck,” she told him. ”Very happy, as a matter of fact.” He grinned at her. ”In that case,” he said between kisses, “then I feel as if our lives have just begun - an’ I hope we stay this way always.” “I think we will; I know we will.” “Even when I’m old an’ cranky?” Puck teased her. “Even when I’m fat and all saggy?” He enjoyed her warmth and was rendered speechless by the smoothness of her skin, the softness of her curves, the honeyed taste of her

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“You’ll never be fat,” Puck assured his beloved. ”You’ll just be cuddlier - an’ I like cuddling. Speaking of which, I wish I could never have to get out o’ bed.” He hugged her tighter. “You’re going to have to find a way to record from home then,” Ginger giggled. “Hey, if Liza Minnelli could record an album from her bed, then why can’t we?” “You’re being silly, Robin Andrew.” “And ye, ma darlin’ Ginevra-Gertrude, are just plain lovable.” He cuddled her tight, resting his chin on the crown of her head.

The End

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