Authors: Barbara O'Neal
“Hard to believe winter is just around the corner.” His window was down, allowing a fresh piney breeze to blow through. He held his free hand out in the air, as if to capture the sunny day.
“Do you like the winter?” she asked.
“I do, actually. Cold invigorates me. You?”
“It’s been a very long time since I’ve lived in a place with a real winter. We’ll see.”
“You grew up with it, though, right? Did you like it when you were a kid?”
Elena said slowly, “I guess. We never had enough warm clothes, honestly. I’m not saying that in a pitiful way, but there were a lot of us and only so many dollars to go around.”
“I get that completely. New Jersey is brutal in the wintertime. I remember some relative sent me a down coat—you know the big puffy ones?—for Christmas one year and it was so warm I just wanted to cry.”
Elena laughed. “Exactly. I found some insulated gloves once, and it was the same thing. I wanted to wear them twenty-four hours a day.”
He glanced at her. “You have a great laugh.”
She paused. “Thanks.”
The house appeared, not as drastically huge as some were in the area, rambling for tens of thousands of square feet. This was big, with a round turret and several outbuildings, but it was in the human realm. Built of fieldstone and timbers, the colors blended agreeably into the landscape, with balconies and secret patios appearing here and there.
Elena liked it tremendously. “It looks like something out of a fairy tale.”
“That’s what my daughter thought. I let her make the final choice.” He opened the back gate and let Alvin out. “Does he need to be leashed?”
“No, he should be fine. Are you sure you want to let him into your house? He sheds like crazy.”
His grin was slight and charming. “I have an army of cleaners. Dog hair wouldn’t stand a chance.” He waved her ahead on the sidewalk. “Oh, and by the way, my daughter hates it when people tell her she looks like her mother.”
“Thanks for the alert.”
A trim, well-coiffed woman in jeans opened the door. “Good morning, Mr. Liswood.” She nodded at Elena. “We’re about to finish up. Will we be in the way?”
“Not at all, Georgia. This is Elena Alvarez, the executive chef at my new restaurant. We’ve come to look at the kitchen. Maybe you want to show us around?” He smiled slightly. “Georgia is crew leader. I’m sure she knows my kitchen better than I do.”
For a long second, between standing on the stoop and stepping over the threshold, Elena tried to decide how to play her dazzlement. As her foot landed inside, and the sweep of light and design drew her eyes upward, she knew. “Wow.”
The entryway was three stories tall and bright, with a window at the top. Galleries ran around the opening, and a waterfall fell in tiny ribbons from the roof to a floor below.
“Very cool,” Elena commented, pointing at the neat strings of water.
“The guy who designed it has a great sense of play.” He tossed his keys into a dish on a table. “He’s won awards.”
“This way,” Georgia said, leading them along a hallway made of stones. They passed the staircase, which curved behind the waterfall and up to the floor with the galleries. On the other side of it was an office area to the left, with a two-sided fireplace that also heated an outdoor patio, and to the right, a great room.
Which fronted a gigantic gourmet kitchen furnished with gleaming stainless steel appliances—a six-burner gas stove, two ovens, a microwave, and two fridges. Elena opened a silver hooded appliance. “Aha! A steamer. Wow.”
Julian said nothing. Elena made her rounds, checking the area for workability. The counters were black granite speckled with gold. Problematic for serving, since granite cooled things so fast, but they could cover the stone. One sink was nestled in an island; the other—by a dual set of dishwashers—looked out to a dazzling view of craggy mountaintops and vivid blue sky. There was a wine cooler, a butler’s pantry filled with glassware, china, chargers, and table linens of several matching varieties. “Patrick will be pleased,” Elena remarked.
“And the chef?”
“The chef could happily die in this kitchen.”
The woman chuckled.
“And do you think the service will work all right from here?” Julian gestured toward the great room, with its shoulder-high hearth against one wall, and glass doors on either side, one set opening to an enclosed patio, the other to vast, multilayered wooden decks. The dining area was huge, with an enormous oak table. The passages were clean and wide. Alvin wandered the edges of the room, curiously sniffing at corners, at vases, pausing to look into the distance.
“How many people?”
“Between fifteen and twenty, depending on who brings a partner.”
“We can accommodate that easily from here. You could probably manage a hundred, honestly.” She pressed her hands against the cold, cold counter, admiring the wide decks, the views, the
of so much available, uncluttered space.
“It’s great, Julian. Excellent design.” Elena turned in a slow circle, lust rising in her. “It will be a delight to work here.”
“Oh. My. Gosh!” came a high girly voice. “Dad! This is the most beautiful dog I’ve ever
!” A blonde teenager collapsed on her knees in front of Alvin. He puffed up his chest and licked his lips, waiting to be adored.
She obliged, raising both hands to his head, to his back, moving with the firm strokes of a genuine dog lover. “Ooooh,” she squealed, “he’s so soft!” She kissed his big velvet nose, and he groaned in exaltation.
“Told you,” Julian said with a wink. “Portia, this is Elena, and that’s her dog, Alvin.”
The girl paused momentarily to look at Elena. Her eyes were enormous and startling, the pale, unbroken blue of a delphinium in a face that was a porcelain oval, absolutely flawless, with a rosy plump mouth. Her pale silky hair tumbled around slim shoulders.
She looked exactly like her mother, Ricki Alsatian. Elena said, “Hello, Portia. I hear you’re quite a skier.”
She shot a look at her dad. “I guess. What kind of dog is he?”
“Chow and nobody knows what.”
“I’d say Newfoundland,” Portia said, “that big head. But he has some golden retriever aspects, too, doesn’t he? Those fronds on his legs? Are his paws webbed?” She lifted one and looked. “Yep. I’d say chow, Newfoundland, and retriever.” She kissed his nose again. “You are the most beautiful dog ever—yes, you are.”
Alvin shot Elena a sideways look that said,
Are you registering how to do this?
She laughed. “He’s your slave for life. Do you have a dog of your own?”
“No. I’ve moved too much. It’s not fair to them. I
doing community service at a rescue center here, though. It’s great, I love it. And there’s a doggie day care here that lets me volunteer sometimes, too.”
“Doggie day care?”
Petting Alvin ceaselessly, Portia nodded. “It’s right in town. You drop your dog off in the morning and pick him up at the end of the day, and he gets to play all day while you work, just like a kid. They have play groups and nap times and everything.”
“I bet skiers love it.”
“Probably. I haven’t worked there in the winter.”
She was a charming girl, and Elena was surprised, though she was ashamed to acknowledge why. Because she was a rich girl. Because she was beautiful and probably at least somewhat spoiled—how could she help it? Because she was the daughter of a famous actress and a famous director.
And partly, because Elena knew she’d been in trouble. But here she was, an absolutely adorable, flat-chested, soon-to-be-devastating, princess of fourteen. Elena wanted to sink down beside her and find out what she thought about, let her walk Alvin. She breathed in and scented bananas, chocolate, yeast. A jumble that didn’t quite make sense.
“You’ll have to give me the address and I’ll visit,” Elena said. “It might be a good place for him when we get the restaurant open.”
“Are you the cook?”
“Chef,” Julian said.
“Yes,” Elena said, directly.
She only nodded. “I can babysit him sometimes if you want.”
“I’m going to be here next week to cook. Do you want to start then? He obviously loves you.”
“Okay! He can watch movies with me!”
Looking at Portia, Elena realized she was painfully, deeply starved for the company of females. Over the years, she’d grown used to working in such a male-dominated environment, but she had grown up with sisters. She needed other women in her world.
where are you?
CARNE EN SU JUGO
steak and bacon swimming in savory citrus and chile broth
CHILE TASTING PLATE
an assortment of roasted chiles, served with fresh flour tortillas and sliced avocados
ROASTED PORK TAQUITOS
on blue corn with tomatillos and onions
stew with pork, chiles, and hominy
MANGO AND AVOCADO SALAD
light, zesty, and beautiful
STUFFED ZUCCHINI BLOSSOMS
delicately fried blossoms stuffed with blue corn bread and piñon nut stuffing
ROASTED ONION TART
mildly spicy dish, thinly layered with mild chiles and manchego cheese
very spicy stew with chiles and pork and cheese, served with white tortillas
hen she worked at her first San Francisco restaurant, Elena had lived above a shop owned by an eccentric black woman, who had traveled to America with a lover from one of the islands when she was a young girl. The lover was long gone, the islands only a memory in her faint accent, but her shop was an explosion of jars and pots and potions, a narcotic blend of scents that went straight to Elena’s head when she walked in. The woman, perhaps sixty, was called Marie, and she had a statue of the Black Madonna surrounded by red flickering candles on an altar at the back of the store. She put fresh flowers and offerings of food out and lit tall candles with the seven saints on the wrapper to the dark carved beauty. The altar comforted Elena, a symbol she could understand in a city that was very unlike any place she had ever been.
Marie shouted out when Elena first arrived in the store, “Get, get!” She waved her dark bony hands toward the door, and, startled, Elena had turned to go.
The woman caught her arm, gently. “Not you, child. The ones you brought with you. We don’t want them here. You can take a break, huh?”
The old woman made cups of strong, exotic teas, sometimes spiked with rum, and told Elena stories of men she had known and the dishes she had cooked for them. She was a sorceress, a snake charmer, a voodoo priestess, perhaps, and she knew the secrets of seasoning in a way Elena instinctively understood was her true magic. Starved for a daughter of her own, Marie adopted Elena for the two years she lived there, and taught her the secret language of spices, the way saffron sparked a dish to life, the cleverness of nutmeg, the sharpness of ginger. Marie taught her how to pinch and taste and measure spices, how to blend hot and sweet, bitter and bright, savory and salty.
Now, Marie was in her mind as Elena and Julian ate a spicy fusion of Indian and Caribbean at an Aspen café. The ReNew Café had been open for more than three years to great success. An organic vegetarian restaurant with an eclectic menu, green practices, and a hip, youthful setting, it had surprised everyone—especially the owners—by taking off. They’d had to move once to accommodate the in-flux of customers, but the owner insisted they wouldn’t move again. They couldn’t handle a hundred covers and still cook the way he wished, with authentic, organic, vegetarian food made to order.
“How you folks doing?” the server asked. He was lanky and dazzlingly young, his upper body twice as long as the lower.
“It’s fantastic,” Elena said of her stew. “Excellent spices.”
“Good,” he said. “Let me know if you want more tea.”
That was the other thing—no alcohol was served. The owner was Baha’i.
“The music is good, too,” Julian said. “What’s playing?”
“Some kind of world-beat thing,” the boy said. “I’ll check for you.”
Elena smiled as the boy ambled away. Julian’s disguise had turned out to be remarkably simple—and effective. The curls were tucked beneath a Rastafarian-style knitted hat, and he wore black horn-rimmed glasses and a long-sleeved black T-shirt with wooden beads around his neck. He looked like a weird professor of some esoteric thing, like the history of the Congo or Sufi poetry. “You do nerd really well.”
“Yes, ma’am—lots of practice.”
“You mean, in disguises?”
His grin turned rueful.
As a real nerdy guy. When I was seventeen, I played Dungeons and Dragons
He lifted a finger—wait. “I also had an entire collection of all of Stephen King’s novels, and could quote, word for word, Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Raven.’”
Elena’s nostrils quivered with laughter. “I’m getting this picture of a very skinny, intense boy. Virgin?”
“Oh, yeah.” He waved a hand. “To have sex, you’d have to actually talk to a woman. I couldn’t seem to connect.”
“With that array of interests? Imagine!”
“I know. Go figure.”
“So what changed it?”
“I made a movie,” he said, lifting a shoulder. “Suddenly, there were a lot of beautiful girls who wanted to talk to
Something about that pierced Elena. “Was it hard, trying to figure out who wanted you for yourself?”
“At that point, I didn’t particularly care.”
Elena laughed appreciatively.
“You, on the other hand,” he said, “were probably the queen of your high school, weren’t you?”
“Hardly. I was odd woman out, too. Not a nerd, though—I was just different. If it hadn’t been for—” she paused, but only for a second, “my boyfriend and my sister, I would not have had any friends, I’m sure.”
His dark eyes glittered. Focused.
“Well, for one thing, I stood out because I was so white looking, you know.” Isobel suddenly appeared and settled into the chair to Elena’s left. She shot her a glance, but Isobel folded her hands, blinking in total innocence.
“Go on,” Isobel said. “We’re both listening.”
“Um.” She rarely showed up when there were other people around, and telling the story felt suddenly self-conscious. “There were other white kids, but I wasn’t in their camp, since I was an Alvarez.”
“Lucky for you,” Isobel said.
“Lucky for me,” Elena repeated. “So I was in between. And,” she said, spearing a lovely cube of roasted sweet potato, “I was
a bookworm and I got straight A’s.”
“Boring,” Isobel said. She reached for a crust of bread, but Elena shot her a look.
“‘Boring’ is the word,” Elena said.
“Oooh,” he said, grinning. “Not quite chess, but nobody likes a smart girl, either. Were you valedictorian?”
A cold, salty wave of memory doused her pleasure. Isobel vanished. “No. Things…got in the way.”
She shook her head.
He let it go, taking a sip of green tea. “I’ve been working on a soundtrack for the Orange Bear.”
Grateful for the change of subject, she said, “Spoken like a director.”
“And for the same reason—music creates a mood.”
“I’ll buy that. Are there soundtracks for your other restaurants?”
“What’s the soundtrack for the Blue Turtle?”
“Let’s see—the CDs are about four hours long, and I usually end up mixing about five or six. For the Turtle, there is some French, some Canadian indigenous music, some East Indian influences. Other things, but those are the basics.”
“I never noticed.”
He shrugged. “You’re in the back. You’d never hear it.”
“True.” She stabbed a chunk of roasted red pepper from the stew and examined it. “This is really very good,” she commented. “So what’s on the soundtrack for the Orange Bear?”
“It’s better to play it for you.”
“You’re not doing a bunch of old ranchero favorites, are you?”
His smile was secretive and slow, his black eyes suddenly darker, more intriguing. “Not at all.”
She inclined her head. “When can I hear it?”
“Whenever you like.”
“In the evening. I’ve got a lot to do during the daylight hours.” He met her eyes, lifted his glass of water, and paused. “Your place or mine?” Again that slow, playful smile, a glitter dancing on his fathomless irises. A jewel in a ring on his right hand caught the light, a contrast to the Rastafarian hat.
Not this one, she said to herself.
Not this one.
“I have a lot to do, too. Let’s make it at the restaurant.”
The server returned. “The music is Lhasa de Sela,” he said, fingers resting lightly on the tabletop as he leaned in.
“Thank you,” Julian said. As the boy departed, he said, “I think we should steal it, don’t you?”
“Is our pastry chef here yet?”
Elena sighed. “No. Next week. She said.”
“That’s leaving us pretty short, isn’t it?”
“Not really. We’ve been working through email, so she’s in the loop. I have her absolute promise that she’ll be here on Thursday. We don’t need her for the first tastings.”
“You sound pretty confident.”
“There is no one like Mia, trust me. Her almond cornmeal cake is like something you remember from another life. Seriously.”
He settled back in his chair. “And if she doesn’t arrive?”
“She will.” Elena touched her lips with the napkin. “I’m going to find the ladies’ room and see if I can get a peek at the kitchen.”
While Elena was gone, Julian let himself drift into the music, letting it call up images and stories and colors. He saw green jungles and elephant feet on very black springy earth, and men with loose shoulders and women with hips swaying side to side. Mixed with the scents of nutmeg and cardamom in the air, it lent a powerful flavor to the mood. Very smart.
He caught sight of Elena weaving her way toward him through the candlelit room, her hair shining on her shoulders, that astonishing mouth moving slightly, as if she were talking on a BlackBerry. Her gait was more pronouncedly uneven, and he wondered if she ever used a cane. Her hips swayed. Her breasts.
As she sat down, he said, “You talk to yourself a lot.”
A flicker of alarm and surprise crossed her face. “Do I?”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Lots of creative people talk to themselves.”
She nodded, her eyelids dropping to hide her expression. Hide something, anyway. She speared a vegetable from her dish and held it out to him. “You should try this.”
He had the strongest sense that she was distracting him, but he leaned in to take it from her fork. As their eyes met, something arced between them. He felt it in the middle of his chest, and in the base of his skull. The vegetable, a square of roasted orange squash, burst in his mouth, and still he let himself drift in Elena’s mysteriousness. A room of their own opened suddenly, empty and inviting, a place with white walls and dark, polished wooden floors and a view of some blue vista through the casement windows.
He saw a thousand details of her face, all at once, her surprisingly robust eyebrows and thin, long lashes and a scar the size of a fingernail on her forehead.
She looked down first.
“How much do you hurt on a daily basis?” he asked quietly.
“What makes you think I hurt?”
He raised his eyebrows, waited.
She shrugged. “Some days a lot. Some days not very much.” She carefully put her fork down on her plate. “You don’t have to worry that I’ll be unreliable. I’ve lived with it a long time.”
“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 rose from a fire. For a moment, Julian thought it seemed there was fire flickering out from her very skin, like 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.”
Heat touched his cheeks. Shame. Quietly, he said, “Touché.”
“The thing is,” she said, “it’s so ordinary. How many people die in a car accident every day?”
“A lot,” he agreed. “I’m more interested in the fact that you lived, Elena.”
For a moment, she stared at him, her hands folded in her lap. Again he had that sense of the bending of the air around her, shimmering heat waves rising around her, but her face was like a painting of a Spanish Madonna, composed and blue-eyed and too sensual for the mother of God.
Abruptly, she seemed to come to a softening. “Look, Julian, I just don’t like to talk about it.”
The strangeness around her broke, and again he was only looking at the woman he’d hired to run his kitchen, beautiful and broken and strange, but just a woman. “Shall we go?”
Julian nodded. The terrible thing was, her warning only ratcheted up his curiosity even more.
Elena tossed and turned after her meal with Julian, restless in so many ways. She lay in the dark thinking of the menu—was it full enough? Was there enough variety? Too much? Was it too ordinary? Too pretentious?
Not now, she told herself. But then flashes of Julian’s face rose in her mind, the knowing light in his eyes. The way he had of holding her gaze, then sweeping his eyelids down, as if pressing a secret into his mind. She thought of the way his hands—