“HAVING a good time, dear?” Madame asked in a cheerful tone. Then she lowered her voice. “You looked like you needed someone to throw you a rope.”
“Yes,” I said, my stiff smile still in place, “and, as you can see, I grabbed it.”
“Well, you’re out of the hole now, Clare.” She raised a silver eyebrow. “For the moment.”
The remark was pregnant with meaning, but I wasn’t up for pursuing it. “I’d just like to get my appetite back.”
“Well, have another cocktail, dear, and you’ll be feeling far less pain. In the meantime-” She took my arm. “Let’s work the room together, shall we?”
I drained my cocktail and set it on a passing waiter’s tray. “Lay on, McDuff.”
Together we began to move around the room. I’d already said hello to many of the men who’d been at Monday’s bachelor party: Koa, the big Hawaiian Kona grower; Dexter, the Rasta-haired Caribbean coffee merchant; and Roger Mbele of Kenya ’s Nairobi Coffee Exchange.
But there were lots of others here as well, men who hadn’t been able to make Matt’s bachelor party, and some women, too, although none of us could hold a candle to Madame, whose impeccable taste had her looking as elegant as ever in a shimmering V-neck double-tiered sage dress with a matching scarf thrown over one shoulder and a long, stunning necklace of pearls threaded through delicately entwined chains of white gold.
“Who have we here…” Madame began, introducing me to a number of people from her son’s long, globe-trotting life that I’d never had the chance to meet.
First was Joao, a stout, apple-cheeked, middle-aged grower from Brazil whose teenage granddaughter was thrilled to be making her first trip to New York. Then I met a well-spoken young Costa Rican man and his bubbly sister, both with hazel eyes and beaming smiles.
Matt wandered over when he noticed us speaking with Pierre Audran, a striking Belgian blond who used to be an officer in the French Foreign Legion, and who now grew coffee in Africa. With a mental roll of the eyes, I excused myself when he and Matt started reminiscing about some wild nights they’d had a long time ago with a half-dozen half-drunk Parisian girls.
Finally, Madame presented me to a sweet Indonesian couple, who’d been providing the Village Blend with their earthy, full-bodied Sumatra for the last five years.
“We’re so happy your country is recovering after the tsunami,” I told them both.
“Yes, it was like a bad dream, a terrible dream,” Mr. Raja said. “Many were lost. We ourselves lost friends.”
“But we were lucky, too,” his wife added, touching his arm. “Our farm is on a mountain near Lake Tawar in northern Sumatra, so it was not damaged.”
“Matt tells me your farm is very beautiful. And it produces beautifully, too. That last crop was incredible-wild herbal notes, amazing complexity. Delicious.”
The couple smiled shyly and exchanged proud glances. “Thank you,” they said.
A new round of tapas was served, and my appetite was finally back-with a vengeance, unfortunately. I pretty much inhaled my small plate of ceviche de camarones (shrimp marinated in freshly squeezed lime juice served with toasted Peruvian corn and sweet potato).
The dish was stupendously refreshing but not filling enough, so I reached for the next offering: quinoa paella, a delectable version of the Spanish seafood dish. I dug in with gusto, and the rich, spicy flavors tangoed on my tongue. The real surprise, however, was the texture.
In a clever swap, the Machu Picchu chef had replaced the traditional Spanish rice with quinoa (aka Inca rice, a supernutritious grain that the people of Peru had been eating continuously for, oh, about 5,000 years). Like an al dente Italian risotto with a Spanish-Peruvian flair, the combination of crushed saffron, garlic, onion, chorizo sausage, tomatoes, green peas, and piquillo chilies steeped in fresh chicken stock suffused the clams, shrimp, and mussels with bright and piquant flavor.
“Yum-yum,” I said, absently parroting Chef Rafe Chastain’s trademark phrase. I couldn’t help thinking of the man himself, throwing punches with his tattooed arms and chasing a home invader down a Queens back street with a broken floor lamp.
Madame noticed my reverie. “Now what’s that private little smile about?”
“Nothing, really, I was just thinking that I’ll never watch Exotic Food Hunter at Large the same way again.”
“I take it you’re referring to your most recent sleuthing adventure. Matt clued me in on some of the more colorful details. You know, dear, I’m still a little peeved at you for not including me.”
Uh-oh. I’d just found the hole I was apparently not out of yet.
“I distinctly remember what you told me, Clare. There were two female detectives already on the case.”
“I certainly would have included you, Madame, but once the train started moving, there was just no turning back-”
“Excuse me,” a deep voice interrupted. “I would like to thank Matt’s mother for the very lovely lunch.”
“Javier! So nice to see you could make it to the wedding after all.”
A tall, stiffly formal man about Matt’s age took Madame’s hands and kissed her on both cheeks. His face was bronzed, and sun wrinkles framed his dark eyes. He wore his jet-black hair slicked back, and his mustache was thick and long-a very retro south of the border machismo look, which the man carried extremely well.
“Thank you for coming, Javier.” Madame turned to me. “Javier Lozado, this is my daughter-in-excuse me, my manager at the Village Blend, Clare Cosi.”
Good try, Madame, I thought. You’ll get it down sooner or later.
(Several months ago, during the planning stages of the wedding, Madame introduced me as her daughter-in-law, right in front of her future daughter-in-law, Breanne. It was a fairly awkward faux pas and did little to improve my relationship with the next Mrs. Allegro.)
Javier’s smile widened. “Ah, Ms. Cosi! You are the woman we toasted.”
“That was very nice of Matt. How do you know him, Mr. Lozado?”
“Please, call me Javier, if I may call you Clare?” he said, his crow’s feet crinkling attractively. “Matt and I met years ago. In those days, I was a coffee buyer, too.”
“You’re not a buyer any longer?” Madame said, surprised.
He shook his head. “It was too much like my career in the army. It sounds exciting and glamorous, and I confess I enjoyed it for a while. ‘A woman in every port,’ as my American friends used to say. But I soon discovered that I did so much traveling I didn’t have a home. That’s why I grow coffee now, in Colombia, the land where I was born.”
His eyes caught mine, and Javier smiled slyly. “When I long to travel or lack for feminine companionship, I explore the nightlife in a nearby city, or-excuse me, one moment-”
Javier hailed someone and gestured him forward. The short, sad-eyed man approached us. “Madame Dubois. Clare Cosi,” Javier said with great formality. “I am pleased to introduce you to my manager, Hector Pena.”
Like Javier, Pena had clearly spent hours in the scorching sun. But the older man’s deep tan didn’t appear glowing and healthy like Javier’s. His flesh almost seemed to sag, and there were dark circles under his eyes. There was an air of heaviness about the man, as if he were bearing the weight of Job on his slouching shoulders.
“I was just telling Clare it is good to get away sometimes. To travel, eh, Hector?”
Still unsmiling, Hector nodded. “I very much needed to make this journey.”
A waiter appeared with a tray of lomo saltado, a hearty meat dish that’s a favorite in Peru. Marinated strips of sirloin are saut'eed with hot and sweet peppers, cilantro, garlic, and oregano. Usually served over rice and garnished with crispy French fries, the chef made the dish “hand-friendly” by skewering the beef, along with chunks of succulent peppers and a fried potato square. I took a bite of the marinated meat and slipped into a food trance. When I came out again, Hector Pena had drifted away.
“Why is your friend so sullen?” Madame asked.
“A recent personal tragedy,” Javier replied in a lowered voice. “His young daughter was a beautiful and talented singer. She moved to Bogot'a to pursue her career. About a month ago she died quite suddenly, by gunshot.” Javier frowned and shook his head. “I have never seen Hector so desolate, and I have known him for fifteen years, since we were both with the Lanceros-”
“My, that sounds dashing.”
“There is little dash to be found in the Colombian army,” Javier replied. “Only an endless battle against drug cartels and terrorists.”
“It’s appalling, the tragedy in the world,” Madame said, shaking her head. “Roger Mbele was telling me about Kenya ’s troubles not long ago. The post election violence left over a thousand dead in his country.”
“Yes, yes, there is much sadness in the world. That is why I encouraged Hector to come with me to the wedding. He knows Matteo, of course, and is very happy for him, but I am personally grateful for this opportunity to get Hector away from home, away from his troubles, and cheer him up. I am afraid, however, that I am not doing a very good job. Perhaps a lady’s touch?”
“Let’s you and I try together,” Madame said with a wink. She took Javier’s arm and led him off in the direction of his sad friend.
“That’s what happens when you come to the party late,” a deep voice said to me a moment later, “you lose your best girl to a younger man.”
I turned to find Otto Visser standing beside me-Madame’s latest love interest. He was a tall, dapper fellow, leanly built with thinning but still-golden hair. In his late sixties, Madame had met her “younger man” a few months ago, while we were having dinner uptown. They “eye flirted” across the room at each other (Madame’s version anyway), and then Otto approached her, and they’d been dating ever since.
I smiled up at him. “Madame wondered why you hadn’t showed.”
“Work, as usual,” he said, his voice carrying a slight Dutch accent.
An art dealer now, Otto had originally studied to become a Roman Catholic priest, but he left the seminary and became an art historian instead, working for years at the Vatican museums. Now he ran the Otto Visser Gallery in Chelsea and performed private consulting work for several of the city’s most prestigious museums and auction houses.
“I know all about working too many hours, but one of these should cheer you up.” I snagged the waiter.
Otto sampled a bite of the new tapas offering: chicharron de calamar, a crispy fried squid served with crema de recoto, a kind of Peruvian creole sauce.
“Mmmm, delicious,” Otto said. “I’ll have one of these, too.” He snatched a glass of the flowing sangria blanco from a passing tray. After a long drink, he sighed. “I was caught in the middle of another dispute between a buyer who’s willing to spend the moon, and an artist who refuses to sell.”
“Anyone I know?”
“I doubt it. The artist in question is Spanish, famous in some circles, but not yet widely known-”
Apparently, Breanne was near enough to overhear our conversation, because she walked right up to Otto and without even a polite greeting asked, “Do you know Nunzio?”
“The Italian sculptor?” Otto shook his head. “Only by reputation.”
Breanne shot me a sidelong glance. “A shame, because I just got a text message with some very bad news for you, Clare.”
“Me?” I blinked.
“Yes, it seems Nunzio has had second thoughts about loaning us his fountain.”
My breath caught. The fountain was to be the centerpiece of the wedding’s coffee and dessert station. Janelle Babcock and I had worked like dogs planning the details of the tablescape around it.
“That fountain was part of Nunzio’s profile in the magazine,” Breanne said. “Without it, your little display won’t be included in that section. I don’t think our photo editor will even bother including it in the magazine’s wedding spreads.”
I gritted my teeth. The Village Blend certainly didn’t need Trend to make it popular. If I it were up to me, I’d drop the whole damn thing, but it wasn’t just me involved here. I’d be letting Janelle Babcock down big time. She’d just started Pastries by Janelle and she’d worked on the wedding presentation for over a month. Janelle was counting on this national exposure to showcase her dessert catering.
I faced Breanne. “Why is Nunzio backing out?”
“I don’t know for sure.” Her eyebrow arched. “But I have an idea.”
“From the wording he used, I believe it has something to do with spending the last few nights alone.”
“Don’t you remember that card he slipped you?”
Matt appeared just then. “Card? What’s this about a card?”
Breanne glanced over her shoulder at Matt. “It seems our favorite Italian sculptor took a shine to our little barista here. I told her she should give the man a whirl, and now she has a second chance. The text message said Nunzio will talk only with you, Clare. He’s expecting you to ‘discuss the situation’ with him in his hotel room tonight.”
Matt’s jaw dropped. So did mine.
“It’s your coffee and dessert station,” Breanne added blithely. “If you want it featured in the magazine, then you have to find some way to change Nunzio’s mind. I have enough to do. Oh, look who’s here! Come, darling.” She crossed the room, a slightly stunned Matt in tow.
“Unbelievable,” I whispered. Otto was still standing beside me. I noticed he was wearing a half smile. “Otto, did you just hear what she implied?”
I closed my eyes, massaged the bridge of my nose. “How in the hell am I supposed to handle this?”
Otto softy chuckled. “I may not know Nunzio personally, Clare, but I’m sure he’s like almost every other artist I’ve dealt with. Their most vulnerable organs aren’t their hearts or their brains but their egos.”
He nodded. “A tortured artist wrestles with a negative self-image. A confident artist brandishes an arrogance that can undo him. Paint it bold or shade it shy, on either end of the spectrum, it’s the artist’s ego that’s in play.”
Otto drained his glass and set it aside. “Believe me, Clare, I deal with it regularly. Today, for instance, my travails were with Tio, that rising Spanish sculptor I was telling you about. An important collector wanted to purchase the man’s most famous work. It’s called The Trellis. Oh, you should see it. I’ll have it on display in my gallery for at least another week. It’s a stylized garden trellis with a pair of lovers wrapped around each other like vines. Tio was reluctant to part with it, until I pointed out that the buyer would soon be lending his collection to the Museum of Modern Art for an exhibition, and so…” Otto paused and smiled. “Tio relented.”
I nodded, happy for Otto’s triumph, even though I frankly didn’t see how his advice was going to help me in my current situation. My problem was with Nunzio’s libido, not his ego.
“There you are, you rotter!”
A British voice was shouting over the party noise. I turned to see a redheaded woman knocking a server aside. The young man’s tray of choros a la chalaca went flying, and I gasped, heartbroken at the sight of a mountain of mouthwatering mussels sent clattering across the floor.
The woman who’d done the dirty deed didn’t appear to care. She looked to be in her late thirties, and she hadn’t dressed for a party. Her bulky wool pinstripes and sensible heels looked more like she was on a break from a bank office or legal firm. The dreary gray outfit didn’t take away from her flawless, peaches-and-cream complexion, however, and I watched with growing interest as the woman made a beeline for Matt, her angelic face flushing angrier by the second.
“Bugger!” she cried. “You’re ‘not the marrying kind’! That’s what you told me! Then I get this in the post!”
The woman waved a gold-embossed card and threw it in Matt’s face.
“Oh, shut up, you git.”
I thought the woman was going to slap Matt. Instead, tears came to her long-lashed brown eyes, and she fled the room.
In the silence that followed the confrontation, Matt stooped down and picked up the engraved card she’d flung. I moved closer and saw that it was a wedding announcement. I knew what Matt and Breanne’s wedding invitations looked like, and this wasn’t it. This was just a simple engraved announcement card declaring that Matteo Allegro would be marrying Breanne Summour in New York City. It gave the date of the nuptials but no other information.
From the expression on Matt’s face I could tell he was as dumbfounded as I was. Then a conclusion appeared to dawn in his eyes, and he whirled to face his mother.
“Someone’s been sending out wedding announcements to my old flames-which explains why these women have been confronting me all week. This was your doing, Mother, wasn’t it?”
Madame, who was still visiting with Javier Lozado and trying to cheer up Hector Pena, blinked in complete shock. “I swear to you, Matteo, I did no such thing.”
Matt turned to face his fianc'ee. As soon as he saw her expression, he knew the truth. “You did this. Didn’t you, Breanne?”
“Yes, it’s true,” she said, not a trace of contrition in her tone. “I had my assistant download your PDA for the addresses and phone numbers stored inside. I just wanted all of your friends and acquaintances to know that you were getting married, that’s all.”
“When?” Matt demanded. “When did you do this?”
Breanne shrugged. “Maybe a month ago.”
I shook my head. The woman’s expression appeared to be all surprised innocence, but her action had been coldly calculated. She’d effectively notified every last woman in Matt’s little black PDA book that he was no longer available.
“Son of a-” He shook his head. “You invaded my privacy, went into my PDA without telling me. You contacted people from my past, with your own agenda, without even warning me. You humiliated me, Breanne. You, you-”
Breanne reached for her groom, but he pulled away.
“Get away from me,” he rasped.
But he wasn’t listening. Before anyone could stop him, Matt stormed out.
“Please, someone, follow him,” Madame said with worried eyes.
Flanking Matt’s mother, Javier and Hector instantly nodded and chased after Matt. Koa Waipuna took off after them.
As soon as they were gone, all heads turned to Breanne. By the time she finished a swallow of her Pisco Sour, her calmly superior mask had slipped back over her stunned expression. But I’d gotten to know the woman well enough in these last few weeks to see the little cracks around her edges. Matt’s violent reaction to her brazen stunt had rocked her. Up to now, he’d been patient and accommodating. She was probably expecting him to roll over and accept this little prank without a peep. Clearly, she’d miscalculated.
On the one hand, I was appalled that Breanne had violated Matt’s privacy. But I had to admit I was pretty impressed with the move. It was shrewd, a way to keep Matt from straying-with all the old flames, at least. Her actions also made me wonder just how well Roman knew his best friend. Sure, Breanne gave lip service to being free of middle-class morals, but this little trick made it clear that she actually did care about fidelity-or at least sharing Matt with other women.
I felt myself smiling. If anything, this was a good sign. In my opinion, Breanne was starting to act like a wife.
For a good twenty minutes, the bride-to-be put on a good face for her luncheon guests, chatting with the Rayos, an Ecuadorean couple, before finally retreating to the ladies’ room.
I felt a touch of pity for the woman. After what just happened, I assumed she must be feeling terrible. I glanced at Madame, hoping the mother of the groom would take it upon herself to comfort her future daughter-in-law. But when I saw the expression on her face, I knew she wasn’t unhappy with the conflagration. Clearly, Madame continued to hold out hope that her son would say, “I don’t.”
But somebody should really check on Breanne…
When it was obvious that no one else was going to step up, I sighed, set my glass down, and followed Ms. Wonderful to the women’s room.