Authors: Barbara O'Neal
“No.” Elena smiled, imagining Mia’s choppy black hair blowing around on a London wind. “You’re going to move to Aspen anyway, so forget about him.”
“Aspen? Why am I moving there?”
“Because I have been offered a position as executive chef in a new Julian Liswood restaurant and I will only take it if you agree to be my pastry chef.”
“Oh, my God! Liswood the director?”
“This is fantastic.” She paused. “Oooh, the timing is horrible! I might have to think about this, though, you know? The man is really good. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about him.”
Elena heard something in her friend’s voice. “Who is it? You haven’t mentioned anyone.”
“I just didn’t think it was going to be anything. He’s…” She laughed breathlessly. “I’m still afraid to talk about it very much.”
“Oh, but I need you, Mia. This is what we’ve been planning for a million years.”
“Is Dmitri coming?”
“No. He fired me this morning.” She sighed. “It’s a long story. I’ll explain it all in person.”
“So the breakup is on?”
“The breakup is finished, finally.”
Mia took a breath. “Good. He was bad for you.”
“Why didn’t you say that before?” Elena frowned. “Never mind. Not important today. Will you come?”
A beat of hesitation. “I have to think, sweetness. I’ll call you in a week or so, okay? I really have to go now. Call you soon.”
But there was the sound of a man’s laughter on the other end of the line and Mia was gone. Elena frowned and clapped the phone closed.
When she hung up, she called Patrick, the third member of their team, but only got voice mail. “Hello, this is Patrick,” he said precisely, and she thought of his coxcomb of blond hair, his excruciatingly neat appearance. “Leave a message.”
! I have a wonderful opportunity for you,
As a hired car transported Julian to the airport—he disliked navigating streets in unfamiliar cities—he drew the newspaper from his bag and unfolded it to show the article about Elena.
The likeness was a good one, making her look saucy. She was no longer young. Not quite forty. He suspected by the way she moved—a little unevenness in her gait, a certain stiffness of the lower spine—that there were physical challenges. The camera loved her face, that thin straight nose and high cheekbones. Blue eyes in a Mayan face. Blonde hair around that olive skin.
And Jesus, that mouth.
After his fourth divorce, seven years ago, Julian—weary and embattled—had given up alcohol and taken a vow of celibacy. Surrounded as he was by the banquet of temptations that was Hollywood, it seemed the only way he could get his head on straight. His last wife, Mallory, had been a yoga teacher who ran the highly successful studio he’d called when he found his body resisted running more and more each year. Yoga had been a boon, centering him, allowing him to see his life for what it was.
Which, ironically, nudged him into realizing that he and Mallory had absolutely nothing in common. She was a spiritual being, ethereal and without high appetites of any kind—for food or sex or even music—and while she’d been a lovely teacher, not such a great life match.
Feeling profligate over women and wine and too much of everything, he gave up sex and alcohol after the divorce. To be a good father, to be a decent human being, he had to figure out how to live with too much money and too much power and try to be whole and human.
His celibacy had lasted twenty-eight months. He ran, practiced yoga, poured his thwarted sexual energies into his films, his restaurants, and the practice of being a father to his daughter.
One rainy San Francisco day, he’d ducked into the kitchen of the Yellow Dolphin, and there had been a woman taking tomatoes out of a basket. She was new to the place, her skin faintly sallow, her hair fine and ordinary beneath a bright scarf, her body hidden beneath her stained smock. Ordinary, really.
And yet, he stood rooted, his ears hot, the back of his neck swamped with blood, staring at her plush mouth. As he stood there, airless and stunned, she sliced a thick wheel from a tomato and tasted it with an expression of distance and internal focus, obviously gauging the depth of flavor. Those lips moved in the most ordinary of ways, pressing together, pursing.
Julian left the restaurant and went for a run, thinking maybe extremes were a bad idea. Balance in all things. That evening, he found a willing partner and ended his celibacy.
But this morning, when he saw that mouth again, on Elena, who stood on the sidewalk in front of the Blue Turtle, looking both angry and crushed, he had been dismayed to realize her mouth still had the power to stun him.
He had nearly turned around without saying a word. And yet, he’d flown to Vancouver to meet her.
He’d done a great deal of research on the sous chefs in his existing restaurants, looking for one who might have the skills to move up that last step. Elena had won in every category—she was known for sharpness and good humor and intelligence. Every chef he spoke to admired her clever and sensual food. He liked that she had her roots in the West, that she’d worked in all the major food markets.
She was such a shoe-in that he’d really only come to Vancouver to meet her in person.
As the car looped through the streets of Vancouver, he tapped the paper on his knee. The women who tempted him most were never the great beauties, though God knew he’d had his share of those as well. It was stories that snared him, and Elena Alvarez was a composite of opposites and mysteries he found deeply intriguing. He read the article again.
His cell phone rang. The display showed Elena’s name. He answered warmly. “Elena, I hope the news is good.”
“I have questions,” she said in the faintly and uniquely accented voice—a hint of a drawl, the softening influence of Spanish, a musical dash, perhaps from the time in France. Entirely unique. “Can I bring two people with me?”
“Absolutely. Anyone I know?”
“No one from the Blue Turtle. Patrick is a sommelier with genius for the front of the house, and Mia is a pastry chef. Very talented, both of them.”
“Aside from the two I mentioned, everyone else is your call.”
Julian heard her take a breath, as if to steady herself. “All right, then, Mr. Liswood. I’m all yours. The sooner I get out of here, the better.”
“Excellent. I’ll fax the contract and get on the condo right away.”
“Don’t forget I need to bring my dog.”
“I won’t forget.” He paused. “Welcome aboard, Elena.”
“I’m honored to have the chance. If I haven’t said so, thank you. Very much.”
“My pleasure.” He hung up and held the phone tenderly in the cup of his hand for a long moment until the car stopped at the airport.
He tugged his hat lower on his head, hiding his hair. Dark glasses hid his face, and the combination made him anonymous. Until the recent security crackdowns, he’d traveled as Jonathan Craven, the antihero in his block-buster horror series, but 9/11 had put an end to that. Now he was simply Julian Liswood. Not many security guards recognized the name by itself. Directing was not like acting.
Settled into his first-class accommodations on the plane, he remembered to be grateful for the extra space for his long legs, and flipped open his cell phone, dialed the number of his business manager. “I found my chef. We’re a go for the Aspen restaurant,” he said, watching two burly men load bags into the hold. “Let’s meet this evening.”
Paris Hot Chocolate
Very nearby the Louvre is a strip of tourist shops and eateries. One is a two-story restaurant with beautiful young waitresses and a counter in front to sell chocolates. It’s called Angelina’s, and I think it was famous at one time. The walls are baroque and a little grimy, with mirrors and gilt. There, three expats in Paris retreated on a miserable, rainy November day in 1993 and huddled together, wishing for home. Until the chocolate came, a big, boiling hot pot of it, served with a pitcher of thick cream. Patrick, who had been there as a child, smiled and poured.
“Now taste,” he said.
Mia and I, mourning our language and our homes and our boyfriends, who lived ten thousand miles away across an ocean, picked up our cups. I took one swallow, and a chocolate river opened into my throat, down through my chest. I
lena had met Patrick and Mia in Paris. The trio were eager students at Le Cordon Bleu, giddy with possibility and miserable in their Americanness and clumsiness with the language.
Mia was a soft, round Italian-American girl with clouds of hair and breasts and lusciousness, who could prepare pastry so seductive that she never lacked for lovers, though she could not master the art of keeping them. She made Elena think of her lost siblings, and that led her to sit down next to Mia the first day of class. They bonded immediately.
Patrick was a Boston blue blood with a flair for service, who fussed over details and beauty. He joined Elena and Mia a week into the program, rejected by a pair of French youths who disdained Patrick’s slight and boyish plumpness, his nearly albino paleness.
On long rainy afternoons, the trio huddled in the tiny apartment they shared, and nursed hangovers from drinking too late in tucked-away spots with black-clad human commas who made Elena think of beatniks. As they warmed themselves with coffee, shivering beneath shawls and blankets, they spun a dream of opening their own restaurant—Elena as chef, Patrick in the front of the house, Mia as pastry chef.
Now, fourteen years later, they would have the chance. Within three days, Elena had promises from both of them to join her in Aspen, and three days after that, she was on the road in her Subaru that had plenty of room for Alvin, her possessions, most of which belonged in the kitchen—she didn’t even have many clothes, since she spent most of her time in chef’s whites—and herself. She nestled a geranium, a bright magenta bloomer, in a secure spot. It was the one thing she’d carried from place to place to place all these years, grown from a cutting she’d taken from a plant in her grandmother’s restaurant.
Place to place, she thought. Place to place to place to place. God, she was getting weary of always moving on! And yet, what choice was there? She was a chef. She went where the work carried her.
She arrived in Aspen on a Tuesday afternoon. “Look at this!” she said aloud, just in case Isobel was listening. Her sister never showed up in a car, which Elena could understand, but she talked to her sometimes anyway. “It’s like a scene from a View-Master!”
Mountains towered into the air on three sides, around a town that was scattered down the valley like spilled Tinkertoys. The landscape was painted in seven shades of green—aspens and grasses and junipers—and twelve shades of blue, from sky to mountain and back again, with splashes of gold here and there, like jewelry. On the ground was ocher and red, a little pink granite.
Between the craggy peaks, a thunderstorm gathered, and she remembered suddenly how violent those late afternoon storms could be. She pressed on the gas, realizing she’d slowed down to drink it all in.
“Man!” Elena said to Alvin, who was hanging his nose out the window she had rolled down for him, his long fur blowing back from his face in red-gold streams. “Can you
There were spiderlike cyclists in vivid spandex, and runners with muscular thighs and skinny torsos; backpackers with dreadlocks and ponytails; golfers in pale pastels dotting a green settled against an astonishing view of a big, big mountain carved with ski runs.
I doing here, Alvin, huh?” she asked. The smell of millions wafted through the fine, thin air on currents of privilege. Houses the size of her high school were tucked away all over the valley, only visible when the sunlight caught their windows and made her turn her head to see what flashed. “I’m so out of my league.”
Alvin grinned at her, his purple chow tongue dripping. His long fur glistened red and gold in the sunlight, his big black face agreeably blunted and broadened by what his vet theorized was probably Newfoundland. Or Saint Bernard. Or something. When he walked, he pranced, and his tail swept up in a perfect curl.
“Yeah, of course
happy,” she said. “You’ll probably be discovered here and become a big movie star and then you’ll never want to take walks with me again.”
Place to place,
she thought, following the directions Julian had emailed to her.
Don’t get too attached to this one.
She found a complex of townhouses scattered along a creek, and her apartment was on the end, close to the road. A pair of ancient cottonwoods stood sentry, and a fenced area butted up to the river, providing a safe place for Alvin to get outside.
Beneath a pot of bright pink petunias, she found an envelope with a key, and let herself in. Alvin raced ahead, relieved to be out of the car at last. Elena dropped the keys on the table, opened the back door for Alvin, and happily walked around.
It came furnished, with a southwestern mountain flavor—heavy wooden furniture and pottery-patterned fabrics. A few expensive-looking prints of local landscapes and portraits of Native Americans hung on the walls. The kitchen was small but high-end, with granite countertops and two sinks and lots of storage. She pulled open the fridge and was touched to discover it stocked with milk and eggs and cheese, and a couple of bottles of wine. Nice.
Upstairs was a loft bedroom, tucked beneath the eaves and overlooking the slopes. On the bathroom sink—also granite—was a bowl of beautiful fruit and chocolate, a very expensive bottle of French bath oil, and a heavy linen card with a note scrawled on it in a thin, somehow aristocratic hand:
Welcome, Elena! I hope you’ll be happy here. Rest tonight and call me tomorrow. Julian.
Bemused, she raised her head, tapping the note against her hand as she admired the glass bricks making a swirl around the shower, the giant raised tub, the elegance of detailing. Alvin padded into the room, snuffling things along the route. She patted his head. “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
Toto flopped down on the thick aqua carpet and licked his balls.
She had planned to head for the restaurant almost immediately, just to take a look around, but a thunderstorm stomped into the valley, violent and flashy. Alvin was not pleased, and Elena curled up with him in the bed, putting her arms around his shivering body. Rain pounded down on the skylights, and the bed was deep and soft, cozy with a thick duvet. She fell asleep.
When she woke up, the rain was gone, birds singing. She leashed Alvin and headed out to visit the restaurant.
The newly washed sky was a brilliant, rubbery blue, and leaves on the famed aspen trees glistened with beaded rain. Even in August, there was a bite to the air, and Elena inhaled with pleasure, half dizzy with altitude. She would get used to it again, but in the meantime, it made her feel slightly giddy.
There were lots of other people about—dogs and runners and tourists. A skinny mother with her healthy brown hair in a ponytail jogged by with a stroller. “Great dog,” she called out as she passed, and Elena smiled in return. Perhaps Aspen would be like Paris, where a dog could provide entrée.
As if he’d heard the woman, Alvin pranced more prettily, lifting fringed legs like a Clydesdale horse. He stopped periodically to snuffle deliriously at the blog notes left by who-knew-what animals on the bases of trees and lampposts and the springy ground. He’d never lived anywhere but the city. The wild animal scents were making him drunk.
The restaurant stood on a side street in an older neighborhood, a Victorian-era house that had been refitted as a restaurant in what appeared to be the late seventies, that ever so elegant decade.
Elena paused on the sidewalk to get a feel for it. And suddenly, there was Isobel, a slim teenager with curly hair tumbling down her back and pale constellations of sexy freckles over her golden skin. A tattoo of a sun adorned her left breast. “Huh,” she said, tucking her hands in the pockets of her jeans. “Not very welcoming, is it?”
Alvin leaned hard on Elena’s knee, shivering slightly. She reached down and threaded his floppy ear through her fingers in a soothing gesture. Very softly, he growled.
There was a lot of work to be done, but there was a lot of potential here, too. Elena nodded to herself, pulling her fingers through the down-soft hair beneath Alvin’s ears. The old sign, reading
The Steak and Ale,
hung in weathered neglect over the wide wooden porch, where tables and chairs were scattered in clusters. Good. Since Colorado had no indoor smoking, an outdoor smoking area was a boon. She climbed the steps. “Let’s check out the inside.”
A sign in the window said the restaurant had been closed for remodeling and would be open under new management on November 2. A ripple of nervousness went through her. A little more than two months. Not much time.
Tying Alvin to a post on the porch where he could watch the passersby, she took the key out of her pocket and fitted it into the front door. It groaned open into a small foyer with a set of stairs leading up immediately.
Isobel commented. “All the
will flow right outside.”
“Mmm.” It would also be a headache for wait staff, who’d have to navigate the tiny area and compete with guests waiting to be seated. She pulled a notebook out of her pocket and wrote,
Moving through the rooms, she eyed the window treatments and art on the walls and the table settings laid out for diners who would never see them. The whole place was faintly bedraggled, dated. Dark. The rooms were too small. In her notebook, she scribbled,
upgrade fireplace, paint, Diego Rivera or Oaxaca art. Milagros? Day of the Dead?
Upstairs was the bar area. A tiny secondary kitchen was tucked toward the back, and everything that was wrong with the rest of the place was magnified here. One positive was a bank of windows high on one wall that let in a lot of natural light. Elena pursed her lips. A good granite countertop and more workspace and it might be a good pastry kitchen.
Near the freezer were the service stairs. Not great stairs, either—narrow wood, with a landing—but someone had installed high-quality rubber gripping on the treads. She’d seen worse.
The downstairs kitchen area was, thankfully, much larger, with several workstations, a large walk-in fridge, and a bank of high-end dishwashers. Good. Nothing like falling behind in dishes to throw the rhythm of a night’s service out of whack.
There were upgrades needed here, too, and she wrote them down—stoves, new rubber matting, fresh paint, if only to give it a feeling of being modernized. The old paint was grimy, a pale industrial green.
All in all, it wasn’t terrible. Elena hummed under her breath as she opened drawers, checking the inventory of pots and pans, then she headed down a short hall. In the back was what seemed to be a staff room. Elena peeked in, flipped on the light, and jumped a foot when a body sat up on the cot. She gave an involuntary cry.
“Jesus,” said a grouchy voice.
The man was as lean as a sword, with springy hair pulled into a ponytail. He swung his feet to the floor and glared at her with very bloodshot, very vivid blue eyes. His long face was overly sensual, the mouth wide and full, the nose aggressive, his chin sporting the grizzling of a black beard.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he growled. Despite the foul words, his voice was stunning—dark and rich. He held a hand up against the light.
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“Sleeping. Or I was.”
“Maybe your house would be a better place to do that.”
He glared at her. “Don’t tell me—you’re the princess come to save the restaurant.”
“Princess? Hardly.” She crossed her arms, leaning against the threshold. “I am the chef Mr. Liswood hired.”
“Mr. Liswood?” he echoed. “You mean the big dick director?”
“You must be Ivan,” she said, and thought,
He looked at her, challenge in his eyes. She wondered what he expected her to do right now. “Why are you sleeping here, Ivan? Do you have housing issues?”
He snorted. “‘Housing issues.’ That’s rich. Is that how they teach you to talk out there in the big city?”
“Don’t be a dick. It’s an honest question.”
For a moment, he peered at her. Alcohol fumes came off him in waves, and the odor—human male sweat mixed with the specific bite of tequila—made Elena think of Espanola, of the men who would play poker in a garage set aside for the purpose. They all smelled like this the next morning, and if you were smart, you steered clear of them.
“Everybody has housing issues in Aspen, sweetheart,” he said, and even with all the sarcasm and nastiness, his voice was unruined—the velvety darkness of an orator. He pulled himself to his feet and paused, staring down at her, his shirt in his hands. He made her think of Rasputin with that long face, the intense blue eyes. She swung backward to let him pass, but only just enough.
He shot a look sideways as he went. “I’m the best cook that’s ever lived,” he said, and sauntered away, his back too thin, a tattoo of vines curling around his spine. A sense of brokenness, something lost, came to her, and she let it waft around in the air between them, the smoky purple of bruises. She smelled lemons. Lemon bars? Lemon meringue? No, not so sweet.