Authors: Barbara O'Neal
For Christopher Robin (aka Neal Barlow), with love.
You know why.
The Lost Recipe for Happiness
“I know” he said. A prick of howling sorrow touched him. “God, Elena, I wasn’t criticizing. I read about the accident when I called up your name on Google.”
An icy mask stiffened her pale face. Violet shadows showed beneath her eyes. “I don’t want to talk about that.”
“I’m not asking you to.” He skimmed a spray of bread crumbs from the bare wood of the table. “My mother died violently. I think I know a little about prurient interest.”
She gazed at him impassively, mask still glittering and cold. “I’m sorry,” she said without emotion.
Around her there was a disturbance, a bending of the air like the fine bands of heat waves that rise from a fire. For a moment, Julian thought it seemed there was fire flickering out from her very skin, like in the pictures of saints, but there was no mistaking the cold on her face.
Abruptly she leaned forward, pushing her plate away so she could put her forearms over the table. Her eyes, fierce and sapphire, burned in her face. “Do you know how many times men have wanted to sleep with me because I survived such a gruesome accident?”
“Do you know how often some reporter has come in to do a story on a restaurant and heard the rumors of my past and tried to get it out of me? I’m like a priest who gave up the calling—everyone wants to know the story.” Her eyes narrowed. “I will not give you a story, Mr. Director.”
Gigantic thanks to my wise and wonderful agent, Meg Ruley, and the whole gang at Rotrosen—Andrea, Annalise, Christina, and Kelly—for multiple readings and suggestions and meetings. I am
in your debt. Thanks to my editor, Shauna Summers, for knowing how to nudge me into my best work, and to Christie for endless, endless conversations about the book (and other things). Thanks to Camron Welch, executive chef at Sonterra Grill, who helped illuminate the battlefield of restaurant kitchens and the daily life of a chef; to all my compatriots in the restaurant life at Michelle’s and Papa Felipe’s; Cocos and the Blue Fish Cove, and all the others along the way.
long Elena’s smooth white back is an ancient scar that cuts downward in grotesque beauty like a long, graceful snake. It begins at the joint of her right shoulder and sails south across her shoulder blade, then her spine, swoops around the lower edge of her left ribs and across the unguarded softness where vital organs once lived, and finally ends deep in her left buttock. In places, it looks like a rope, dark pink and angry; in others, it submerges beneath the flesh, showing only a slight white scratch above the skin.
Men love it, thinking themselves so original, so generous in their tracings of it, so accepting. In fact, it is the lover’s version of slowing to look at an accident on the freeway, equal parts horror, fascination, and, if there is any wisdom, gratitude. Some ask her what happened. Some do not. All of them wonder.
But only Elena’s ghosts know her story. The ghosts who travel with her. The ghosts she protects. The ghosts who will never leave her.
Red onions are especially divine. I hold a slice up to the sunlight pouring in through the kitchen window, and it glows like a fine piece of antique glass. Cool watery-white with layers delicately edged with imperial purple…strong, humble, peaceful…with that fiery nub of spring green in the center…”
MARY HAYES GRIECO
The Kitchen Mystic
lena had been expecting Dmitri for more than an hour when he finally stormed through the back door of the Blue Turtle, the Vancouver restaurant where they both worked.
She’d come in early, as was her habit, to cook in the agreeable quiet of the Sunday morning kitchen, when the young apprentices and line cooks and dishwashers were all still abed after their Saturday night revelries. Her only companion was Luis, the forty-something El Salvadorian
who stirred his stockpots with a hand so brown and squat it looked like a hand balloon. He sang cheerfully under his breath, a bloody old Spanish folk song about a conquistador taking revenge on his enemy. It made Elena think of nights at the VFW when she was eleven or twelve, drinking Cokes while everyone danced the two-step. No doubt it made Luis think of bodegas back home.
Humming tunelessly along with him, Elena stood at the stove, stirring pale pink shallots and yellow onions with a long wooden spoon, thinking of the things she needed to check for service today. She thought of conquistadores and the plate armor they’d worn to protect themselves from arrows.
Mainly, she thought of Dmitri, who had betrayed her.
Her whole body ached this morning, back and hips from the old injuries, shoulders and neck from trying to erect the armor she had to assemble afresh each and every day, finely honed plates of sharp arrogance and bad language beneath which she—the secret and guarded Elena—could hide. She rolled her shoulder blades down her back, reminded herself to stand tall.
Shake it off.
When the onions were nearly done, she crushed garlic with the flat of her knife, and was about to scrape it into the mix when Dmitri burst through the back door. Hearing his fury in the slam of the door, she pulled the pan off the fire and turned to meet his anger.
Long and lean, with severe planes in his beautiful Russian face, he strode through the kitchen and flung a newspaper down on the counter. She turned off the burner and wiped her hands.
The paper was turned to the front page of the Lifestyle section, and featured a photo taken two weeks before. Of Elena, dressed in chef’s whites at the end of a shift, long blonde hair pulled back from her face beneath the bright scarves she had adopted as her trademark. She lifted a glass of wine to the camera with a crooked smile and a saucy cock of a brow. It was a good photo, she thought again. It made her look younger than her thirty-eight years, sexier, charming. The headline read:
STANDING UP TO THE HEAT
IFE AS A
“I saw it,” she said mildly.
“You are fired.”
“What?” Her head jerked up. “Come on, Dmitri. It’s not my fault she liked me better than you. And you’re right there in the first paragraph anyway!”
“It is my kitchen. Your focus should have been on the restaurant, on the menu. Not on yourself.”
“It is not
kitchen!” she said, slamming her knife down on the counter. “You have the
of chef, but you know as well as I do that we built this menu and this kitchen together. It’s as much mine as it is yours.”
“Is it?” He raised his index finger. “One question, hmm?” When he got angry or excited or passionate, his speech slipped into the Russian accent he’d labored over many years to lose. “Whose name is on that door?”
She wiped her hands, heat in her throat. “Yours.”
He grabbed the paper, slapped it with the fingers of his other hand. It sounded like a gunshot. “And where is the
of the Blue Turtle in the article?” His eyes, the color of cognac, burned with a yellow heat. “Hmm?”
“Isn’t it supposed to be about the restaurant?”
He gave her a withering look. The
did not belong to him. The kitchen did.
“You told me to talk to her.” Elena shrugged. “I talked.”
A long, simmering silence hung between them, filled with the scent of onions and bruised garlic and the New Mexican chiles she’d asked to have imported. Feigning disdain for his tantrum, she turned the burner back on, pulled the pan back to the fire, and scraped the garlic into it. The back of her neck burned with satisfaction, with worry and loss, with desire. She could smell him over the food, a heady mix of sweat and spices, cigarettes and sex, which he’d not had with her. Beneath her armor, her flesh wept.
“It was revenge, Elena.”
Methodically, she swirled the garlic into the butter, and put the spoon down. Met his eyes.
The minute the reporter had come through the doors with her old-school feminist hair—steely, frizzled salt and pepper—Elena had known she had a chance to get back at Dmitri.
And more, she’d earned it. Not only had he seized the glory from their joint effort to create the menu and the environment of the Blue Turtle, but two months ago, he’d moved out of their shared apartment to live with a girl with breasts like fried eggs and the guileless hero worship only a twenty-three-year-old CIA graduate could afford.
That would be the Culinary Institute of America, not the Central Intelligence Agency.
The garlic could not be neglected. Elena stirred in fire-roasted Anaheim chiles, letting them warm slowly. The scent had zest, dampness, appetite to it. Even Dmitri could not resist bending toward it, inhaling it. She looked at the top of his head, the thick hair.
The interview might have started as revenge, but it had become something more as Elena let herself open up to the reporter, her sharp eyes, her sympathy. “She was a feminist, Dmitri,” she said in the calm voice she had cultivated, “a woman who wanted to do a story about a woman in a man’s world.” She adjusted the flame the tiniest bit. “I gave it to her. And it worked—the restaurant is on the front page of the Lifestyle section.”
“You’re fired,” he said, punching the air with a finger.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Oh, I assure you, I am not. When I come back here in an hour, I want you gone, not a trace.”
He turned, crisp as a Cossack, and marched out of the kitchen.
Automatically, Elena pulled the skillet from the burner and stared after him, pursing her lips. He’d fired her in the past, when they’d had one of their spectacular fights, only to call an hour or a day later to beg forgiveness. He needed her, Elena knew. More than he had sense to realize.
And he would likely calm down this time, too. Call later and beg her to come back.
Luis, who had pretended not to watch the scene unfolding, tsked.
Elena, embarrassed, shook her head. “He’ll get over it.”
But there was, suddenly, weariness in her. Too many fights, too many late nights spent trying to fix whatever it was that had gone wrong. She felt the exhaustion at the base of her neck, along the backs of her eyes. She lacked the energy to go another round with him. As much as she hated to start over—again!—this was broken. It was time to admit it.
She should never have begun. From the moment of their first meeting, she’d known that he was dangerous to her, a woman in a man’s world. For well over a year, she had resisted him, sticking to her unbroken rule to never sleep with a man who had power over her, and Dmitri was even more dangerous than most, a chef with a Russian accent and the mouth of a rock star, a man with that intelligent, amoral twinkle in his eye.
But he pursued her, relentlessly, and Elena had fallen. Fallen to his genius as much as his beauty, fallen to his supposedly undying adoration of her, the mark of a man who lived on his charm.
Now she would pay the price. This silent Sunday morning, she folded her apron and put it on the pass-out bar, then went to the staff room, changed from her chef’s whites and clogs into jeans and a long-sleeved shirt tie-dyed in soft pink and orange, with tiny dancing skeletons on it. A gift from one of her sisters last Christmas, to remind her of home. Packed everything from her locker into the duffel she carried to and fro, and finally went out to the dining room for one last look.
The Blue Turtle had been her home for three years, the menu a loving union of Dmitri’s old-school French methods and Elena’s Santa Fe roots. Vancouverites, adventurous eaters that they were, adored the exotic fusion. The restaurant was a success in a very crowded market, and was attracting international press attention.
was her home, not some faraway town. A blister of fury zapped from the base of her spine through the top of her head.
he banish her like this?
Luis raised his chin.
“Vaya con Dios.”
Elena nodded. Hiking the duffel over her shoulder, she swallowed the hollow sense of loss and headed out to the softness of an early Vancouver morning. For a long moment, she stood there on the sidewalk with a hole in her chest, trying to think what to do.
How depressing to lose yet another home. Another and another and another. She had grown fond of this one, had thought perhaps it might be the
place. Her place.
Across the street, English Bay lay like a mirror in the fresh opalescence of morning. A storm gathered in the distant west, sending a gust of rain-scented wind over her face. She shook loose the hair on her shoulders, and tried to bring her mind to something practical. What could she have for breakfast? There was some fresh spinach, perhaps a hunk of cheese, some pear salad left from the night before.
A man suddenly stepped out of the doorway, and, startled, Elena took a step backward to let him pass. There was an air of confidence about him, something both severe and sensual. Very dark glasses hid his eyes. A thin, hip goatee circled his mouth. She admired the spotlessness of his black jacket, the jeans he wore casually beneath it. Strong thighs, she noticed, relieved to discover Dmitri had not entirely killed her pleasure in the opposite sex.
The man gave her a nod. “Good morning.”
She inclined her head. A silk scarf, ribboned with faint orange and pink stripes, looped around his neck. Elegant. Smart. Maybe he was French.
she said with a faint smile.
To her surprise, he paused. “Are you Elena Alvarez?”
“Who wants to know?”
“Sorry,” he said, tugging off his hat and sunglasses in a single fluid gesture. He had the uncanny grace and coloring of something supernatural—a vampire, perhaps. Tumbles of black hair fell down on a pale, finely boned face. “I’m Julian Liswood.”
“Ah.” The owner of the restaurant. He carried a newspaper under his arm—he must have seen the article. Elena brushed her hands together—finished. “Dmitri already fired me, so don’t bother.”
His lips, the only pool of color in his face, quirked. “On the contrary. I came to Vancouver to speak with you. The commis in there told me you had just left. Do you have a few minutes?”
He studied her face. “You’re quite blonde,” he commented. “For someone named Alvarez.”
“Does that figure into the discussion?”
A flash of a smile crossed his mouth. “No.”
Elena waited. He wasn’t what she’d always imagined, either. The face was not beautiful—that high-bridged nose and sharp cheekbones—but the hair was good. His eyes were steady and very dark and intelligent. It was hard to tell how old he was, but she knew he’d made his first movie when she was in high school. A decade older than she? He didn’t look it. Behind them a wind swept closer, bringing with it the sound of rain.
“Will you let me buy you breakfast?” he asked. “We’ll talk.”
“I’m a chef, as it happens, and my apartment is not far away.” She hoped he would offer her a job. “Why don’t I cook instead?”
“Sadly, I do not have enough time. I have to fly to LA this morning to pick up my daughter.”
“Then by all means, let’s go to the Sylvia.” It was an agreeable and famous old hotel.
They walked there beneath a sky that grew darker by the moment, heavy with rain. He moved with such effortless, long strides that Elena looked at his feet to see if he was actually touching the sidewalk. She felt a little dizzy, overwhelmed, and tried to think of something to say. “Don’t you have a movie out right now?”
“It’s just gone to DVD.” He looked sideways at her. “Are you a horror fan?”
“Not really. I like ghost stories, but the slasher flicks are too violent for me, honestly.”
“I prefer ghost stories,” he said, pulling open the door.
She looked at him. “Why don’t you make more of them, then?”
“The others are in fashion.” He tucked his hat in his pocket. “They finance my smaller projects.”
A man in a white shirt and white tie came hustling forward and seated them at a table by the windows. Elena ordered tea and milk; Mr. Liswood, coffee. In the corner, she saw a cluster of uniformed staff whispering, looking their way. She nodded toward them. “You’ve caused a stir.”