Authors: Barbara O'Neal
He laughed. “Is that the voice of experience?”
“Oh, I’ve had lots of soul mates. Souls mating for an hour or two.” The words sounded bitter, and she gave him a glance under her lashes to soften it. From nowhere rose a memory of Dmitri, curling around her, his lips pressing into her spine, his sex nudging her flesh. She turned the beer bottle in a precise little circle. “Once or twice,” she said more quietly, “I believed in it.”
“And your parents?” He picked up a tortilla, rolled it into a tube between long fingers. “Was their marriage happy?”
“No. My father died in Vietnam before I was born, and my mother was a party girl. My father’s family adopted me when I was eight, but they were Catholic, and married for life.” She lifted a shoulder, thinking of Maria Elena and Porfino, of his sullen silences, the red sharpness of the ignoring, the bristling heat of their union. “Not quite the same thing as a soul mate.”
“Maybe.” Elena wanted to sigh. Roll her eyes. She wanted to say,
I’m thirty-eight years old and have had six major relationships, and at some point, I believed each time that
time we would bond forever.
Instead she gave him a practiced, easy smile to lighten the mood. “Restaurants are not the place to be if you want to focus on relationships, you know? Sometimes, you make a trade for work you love.”
“I’m in a business like that myself.” His face was sober. For a quiet moment, there were ghosts crowding the room, his and hers, possibilities that had once shimmered and had then tarnished. Elena felt the prickling of his hunger, as deep as her own, and tried to brush it from her knowledge.
“I’d like this to be the house soup,” Elena said to chase the ghosts away.
“One of them. Yes. What else have you come up with? Any ideas?”
“Yes,” she said. “Let me serve the chocolate and I’ll show you my notes.”
Julian bent over his cup of chocolate and inhaled. It smelled of cinnamon and chile. As he sipped it—slowly, as if it were a powerful alcohol that would make him lose his head—he felt as if he unzipped the outside layers of artifice and masks and walked out of them, unencumbered in his own skin. Elena’s face captured him, plain and exotic at once, her long eyes and a mouth like some creature from a fairy tale, a mouth to seduce, red and soft and lush; her skin which could be sallow, he guessed, and the shadows below her eyes that would show exhaustion too easily.
They talked about the menu, about parameters and ingredients and philosophy. “Food should be beautiful, fresh, and wholesome.” She held out a hand, palm cupping something luscious and invisible. “Sensual.”
He nodded, listening.
“I want to go with my roots, with southwestern cuisine. Authentic, but high-end.” She leaned on the table earnestly. “I think we can go bright and smart and sexy and authentic.”
“I think so.”
She inclined her head. “I also want to go with as much organic food as possible. It makes it more expensive, and it’s not always possible, but making the attempt is worth it.”
“I have no problem with that.”
“Have you come up with ideas for menu items?”
“A few, but I’d like to bring Ivan into the process, so he feels included. Patrick and Mia will be here this weekend, and we can all brainstorm a menu together.”
He felt he could sit here for a year, never moving, letting her spiced hot chocolate, cinnamon and chile laced through it like a love spell, fill his belly. Finally he gave a nod. “Good.” He roused himself, thought of his daughter who should not be left unsupervised for long stretches. “I’ve got to get back to my daughter, but I’ll be at the meeting tomorrow. Is it two p.m.?”
“Right,” she said, standing up. “I’m meeting the kitchen staff then, but I’d like you to come a little later if you don’t mind. Give me an hour alone with them first.”
“Absolutely.” He shook down his sleeves, pleased. “How about three-thirty?”
“When will your people be here?”
“Patrick is supposed to be here in the morning. He called from Denver this afternoon. Mia should be here by Sunday.” She sighed a little.
“Not really. I wanted to have my allies with me tomorrow, but Mia’s coming from the UK and couldn’t get here that fast. Patrick is—” She paused. “He’s generally reliable, but he’s been in an on-again, off-again relationship with someone and it was on again all week. His lover can’t decide whether he wants to come to Aspen or not.”
“Is the lover a restaurant person?”
She frowned slightly. “He is, but I hope he doesn’t come. He’s brilliant, and I’d offer him work if he shows up, but he’s difficult and demanding and maybe more of a headache than I’d care for just now.”
“And tell me about Mia.”
“Pastry chef. Seriously talented.” She gave him a grin. “Sometimes a little unpredictable—not once she gets here, but knowing when she’ll actually arrive. She could be here tonight, or three weeks from now.”
“I trust you. Email me a copy of your notes, will you?”
“Yes.” Elena walked him to the door. Alvin jumped up and trotted over, his tail wagging.
Julian bent and scrubbed Alvin’s ears, reached lower and scratched his chest. “God, he’s just gorgeous.” He straightened, gave Elena a crooked smile. “What if we call the restaurant the Orange Bear?”
Pleasure blazed over her face, making it beautiful for a moment. “Oh, yes! I love that. You hear that, baby? You’re going to be famous!”
Alvin sat down abruptly and leaned on Julian’s leg. He chuckled. “Suck-up,” he said. Then, “Excellent work, Elena. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
“Thanks. Me too.”
For a moment, he lingered, reluctant to leave the ease of the room. She eyed his torso. “You must be a runner.”
His mouth quirked. “Skinny, I know.”
“Are you fast?”
“Some days. Some days not. My daughter is the athlete.”
“Skis.” He pulled out a wallet photo and showed her a photo of a very pretty blonde teenager in pink ski clothes. “She’s been a natural on the slopes since she was four.”
“Gorgeous. She really looks like her mother.”
Who was Ricki Alsatian, the actress who won the Academy Award for her role in
She got her start in Julian’s early films, usually playing the nubile babe who survived the horror. “She does,” Julian said. “That’s actually causing some trouble between them. I don’t think Ricki likes it much. She loves Portia but it’s hard enough to be an actress past forty, and that much harder to see your youth reflected back to you.”
Elena’s face stilled, and Julian sensed her holding her tongue. Barely. She handed the photo back to him.
He held the picture in his fingers for a moment. “She’s only fourteen. I’ve gotta figure out something to keep her from—” he lifted a shoulder, “going in the wrong direction. She’s lost.”
“So has she been skiing in recent years?”
“Yeah. Until a year or two ago, she was very focused on the goal of becoming an Olympian.” Tucking the photo back into his wallet, he gave her a wry smile. “Here’s the trouble—skiers have very muscular thighs.”
“I know. It’s crazy, but she’s also been living in a pretty crazy world where a size six is kind of getting up there. I’m hoping if she’s here in the skiing world, it’ll counteract some of the LA bullshit.”
“Good for you.”
“We’ll see how it goes.” He tipped his fingers to his brow. “See you tomorrow.”
Organic pork and chicken
Game meats: duck, venison, elk, pheasant
Chiles, lots of different kinds; green and red. Chimayos and Anaheims, anchos, etc.
Cornmeal, blue and yellow, but
Goat and sheep cheeses
Nuts—piñon and pistachios (maybe cashews? almonds?)
Tree fruits—apples, peaches, plums, pears
Citrus—orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit
Squashes, of course, pumpkins, zucchinis, yellow, calabacitas
Onions, tomatoes, garlic, avocados, mangoes, tomatillos
Chocolate, bitter and sweet
Tamales as a cornerstone? What can we do with tamales? (everything!)
Garnishes: whole pinto beans, marigolds, spinach leaves?
lena lay on her bed an hour later, amid a pile of Post-it notes and cookbooks, pages open to glossy photos of food. There was a glass of Italian red wine at her elbow, a rerun of
on cable, a notebook on her lap.
She thought of Julian and the restaurant and her menu. Mostly about Julian, who had more heat and salt coming from him than she had anticipated. Her skin prickled as she imagined his black eyes, his long-fingered white hands, his liquid grace.
she thought with a sigh. She was such a weak and flawed woman. She knew that. She was fond of sugar and wine and too much coffee, which made her heart rush. She liked sex and the malty smell of it lingering on her thighs. She liked men, nearly all of them, for all kinds of reasons. She liked Tony Soprano’s big belly and big nose because he was such a mix of dichotomies—a murdering gangster who could pat a cheek and shred her heart. Men like him made her want to cook, to feed them, to lie down with them and put their heads on her breasts.
Not only the big, lost boys, of course. She liked Lance Armstrong’s hard muscles and Morgan Freeman’s freckled nose and Lorenzo Lamas’s bad-boy grin and Naveen Andrews and—
Alvin snored loudly at her feet, curled up like a kitten, his feathery gold tail protecting his stuffed crocodile. In the notebook on her lap, she lazily drew connections between notes, letting the shape, the colors, the textures of the menu rise in her mind. Blue tortillas and yellow cornmeal, red tomatoes and sweet orange peppers. Purplish duck and white pork and the thick reddish brown of chocolate and cinnamon. Chiles, of course, and roasted vegetables for those cold winter nights. It should be hearty food to nourish skiers, with a handful of lighter offerings for the skinny crowd. For spring, they would shift the menu somewhat, but for now, she would focus on winter food.
Julian had asked her what her
of food was. She’d always imagined it would be a delight to uncover and express that, but instead, she was finding it terrifying to take a stand, develop a particular and notable vision—it could go either way. Soar or sink. Fly or flop.
And yet, if she sat on the fence, offering lukewarm retreads of other people’s ideas, she would fail without question.
The fingerprint of a chef was born in childhood. She remembered drinking red Nehi soda and eating potato chips on the concrete back step of her Uncle George’s store on a hot day, the sky as cloudless and plain as a piece of turquoise plastic. She thought of women cooking tamales in somebody’s kitchen, the ripe smell of simmering pork and red Chimayo chile filling the air. Her Aunt Viola’s tender, pale yellow cake with sprinkles of shredded coconut stuck to the frosting. Watermelon straight out of somebody’s field, hot and sweet and thirst-quenching like nothing else in the world. Hot dogs roasted on a barbecue with little black lines of crackly skin.
She narrowed her eyes, sketching chiles and tomatoes and pigs along the edge of the page. Tamales were hearty, and the structure made it possible to put almost anything inside. Duck? Venison? Peaches? A swirl of flavors rose against the roof of her mouth, a depth of dark sour cherry, the smoky gaminess of fowl, tender roasted onions.
Rubbing her foot over Alvin’s silky back, she felt excitement in her throat, her sinuses.
What if, what if, what if?
There would be challenges, of course, in working with the new staff, but those could be surmounted, surely. Even Ivan, with his Rasputin face, didn’t scare her. If Julian believed in him, then Elena would give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they would create some magic.
The sudden trilling of her cell phone was startling, even more so when she realized it was the European double ring she’d assigned to Dmitri. Dismaying how the sound rushed through the cupboards of memory and threw moments out onto the floor. Some good. Some bad.
She debated over whether to answer. She had not really had time to build up her defenses against him. No good could come of it.
Except, perhaps, revenge. She was no longer sous chef to the dashing Dmitri Nadirov, but an executive chef in her own right, with a menu in motion and a restaurant to command. Flinging her hair back out of her face, she punched the button. “Hello, Dmitri.”
“Elena!” His thickly accented Russian voice poured through the line.
She waited. It was a good trick with men who expected women to carry the conversation, one she’d learned from a cook early in her career.
Let them talk,
You’ll learn a lot more.
“How are you?” he asked.
“I’m well, thanks.”
A string of featureless seconds built between them. He cleared his throat. “I am calling to apologize, Elena. I was rash when I fired you.”
Aha. “It was time, Dmitri. We knew we shouldn’t get involved, that it would mean one or the other of us would have to leave the restaurant when we split. It’s fine.”
“We are professionals, surely. The Blue Turtle belongs to you as much as to me.”
“Which is something you only say when you’ve been an asshole.”
“Perhaps that is true. I am an asshole. It is the nature of the job.” He paused. The sweet, sweet flavor of triumph filled her mouth as she anticipated the next words. “I need you here.”
“I found another position, Dmitri.”
“What? Where? I have not heard that! Are you working for that pig Gaston Mitter?”
Gaston was a giant of a chef, known for tantrums and spectacular food. “No,” Elena answered with a snort, and let their breath fill the line. “I’m working for Julian Liswood. In Aspen.”
A three-second pause. “Aspen. He has a restaurant in Aspen?”
She smiled. “Not yet.”
“Who is the chef?”
“Dmitri,” she said quietly. Chiding. “Who do you
“You?” His shock was insulting. Surprisingly stinging.
“Yes,” she said. “Me. He offered me the job five minutes after you fired me. I’m sitting here in my new apartment in
and I’ll be meeting with my staff tomorrow.”
He cursed bloodily, filthily.
“You fired me,” she said.
“But you knew I would come back to you.”
Her anger billowed into a fire. “You are not God, Dmitri, and I am not one of your subjects, to come crawling back every time you decide to forgive me for whatever imagined sin I’ve committed.”
“Elena, you are the only one who understands me. You’ve always been the only one.”
“No,” she said wearily, closing her eyes. That was how he seduced her, every time, making her feel as if there were not another woman in the world who understood him. Only Elena. A
The lining at the top of her stomach burned. “I’m done, Dmitri. Please don’t call me again.” She hung up.
And yet, in the silence, she felt stung and lost. For a moment, her head was filled with the memory of his mouth, of his thick, skilled tongue and elegant fingers, splaying her like a succulent fish. The man was a lover, lusty, focused, sensual. He could make sex last two hours. Three. For a time, he had been her home.
She took a long breath. Let it go.
He had been her home. And now, he was not.
At two o’clock the following afternoon, Elena met with her staff for the first time. Patrick, newly arrived and smelling of aromatic soap, walked in with her, his hand at the small of her back.
Her pinned and riddled and broken-down back.
It had been a grim morning. Maybe, she thought, it was hunching too much from turning her back on Dmitri. Maybe it was the hard work and the long drive and the stress of the past week. Maybe it was Dmitri’s call and her own expectations. Or maybe it was all of it.
Whatever. Before she awakened, she’d been dreaming of Chimayo chiles, ground to a sweet and powerful powder the color of the red earth of New Mexico, dreaming that she held a small mountain of it in the palm of her hand, and pressed one finger into it, and tasted it, and there was gold like sunlight, in her throat—
And the alarm went off. She slammed into her body, a crab-self, curled and cracked, feet and hands like claws, frozen hips, stiff spine, body heavy and misshapen. Agony to move.
Lying on her side, with her eyes closed, she said aloud, “Fuck.”
Over the years, she ordinarily hid at such times, crawling into a tub of hot water, or to a bottle of tequila. Shame burned her when anyone else saw her drawn up like this, like a very old woman, stooped and stiff.
This morning, she was at least alone to struggle with all the batteredness. Spine, hips, shoulders—all protested every slight movement, as if rust had settled into each tiny bone of her back, clogged the hips and rotator cuffs and shoulder blades. The muscles were like old rubber bands.
“Alvin,” she cried out, and he knew by the tone of her voice what she needed. He pranced over to the side of the bed and leaned against it. Very slowly, Elena put a hand out and used his strong body to brace herself so she could ease out of the envelope of covers, one inch at a time. He was patient, happy to have a job to do to serve his beloved.
It nearly always brought tears to her eyes. How had she lived so long without a dog?
Easing into a squatting position, she stretched the lower spine, not a pain-free process. She used yoga breathing to get through it, to the point where she could actually stand. From there, she hobbled into the bathroom and ran very hot water in the Jacuzzi bathtub. Alvin trotted along beside her, looking up worriedly.
“It’s all right, honey,” she said, gratefully.
The tub proved to be too tall to climb into. She tried. Up two steps, brace herself on the side, lift the leg—
No way. Feeling ninety, she pulled a big purple towel off the rack, wrapped herself in it, and sat down on the step. Alvin stuck with her, leaning on her shin.
she told herself, gritting her teeth.
Gathering resources, she ran her fingers through Alvin’s long fur, tugged on the velvety black ears, and tried to figure out what to do next. She had the meeting this afternoon, the first with her new staff, and she had to be able to put a good foot forward.
A shower. It wasn’t as therapeutic as the hot water in a bathtub, but the warmth would help a little, and this was a high-end shower with a bench and jets that came out of the wall every which way. Half bent over, unable to completely straighten, she turned it on.
There was a little plaque of instructions on the wall.
To Operate Mr. Steam,
turn the nozzle below to the right and wait.
Elena followed directions. From behind the walls came the gurgling sound of water boiling. After a minute, jets of steam came from the nozzles, filling the glassed-in space perfectly. A light above the stall gave it a cheery aspect, and she hobbled in, pulled the glass door closed behind her, and settled on the bench.
By the time she emerged, her joints were still a bit stiff, but functional. She wanted to send Julian Liswood a love poem.
Patrick arrived just before lunch, driving a black BMW convertible he’d rented in Denver. “It suits you,” Elena said, capturing her hair in her fist so it wouldn’t end up with a thousand tiny knots.
He tipped his head without an ounce of deference. “I know.”
She laughed softly. The wayward child of American Irish Catholic royalty, Patrick’s breeding showed in his meticulous grooming. His blond hair was mussed and gelled exactly, his skin as clean and poreless as a child’s, his nose always just a little in the air. He made Elena think of the prized cocks she used to see at the county fair, spoiled and beautifully feathered. Boston raised, Paris trained, New York tested—he was the best of the best when it came to creating the atmosphere and a dining
for a customer. Elena trusted him implicitly.
He didn’t much care for her exuberant displays of physical affection, so instead of a big hug, she gave his arm a squeeze. “I’m so glad you’re here. Mia will arrive this weekend—it’ll be like old times.”
“I found an apartment, a two-bedroom place over the carriage house at the back of some estate. She can rent with me if she likes.”
In the blazing blue and yellow summer day, they drove the short distance to the restaurant. A knot of tourists were examining the menu. “Sorry, folks,” Elena said, getting out of the car. “It’s closed for now. Come back in November.”
Patrick paused on the sidewalk, surveying the property. She stood beside him, giving the computer in his brain time to gather elements, get a reading on the place. His face showed no reaction as they climbed the steps to the front doors. Wordlessly, he pointed out a loose board on the step, a dead pine tree branch hanging over the porch.
On the step, she paused to put on her game face. She remembered she was a tough girl from a tough town with too many brothers and mean cousins, that she’d been trained by some of the best in the business. She’d worked her way up through the ranks, from private in the scullery to captain of the line. Now general.