Authors: Barbara O'Neal
Meditatively, he smoked. For now, he’d let her alone, because it was thanks to her that Patrick had come to Aspen, to this restaurant. Every day, he was happy to go to work; every day, he thought of little tidbits to offer the sommelier, who liked sweets and savories and being right. Patrick was fastidious and highborn and out of Ivan’s league by six classes, but it didn’t seem to matter. He couldn’t stop thinking of him, and in his company, he was captured every day by some new detail. His water-green eyes. A pursed mouth, like a Kewpie doll. Those elegantly clean hands with the precisely cut nails.
Ivan took a drag off his cigarette and looked at his own nails. His hands were scrupulously clean, of course. A chef was careful with things like that, but his nails were buttugly. He should take better care of them.
Vaguely, he was aware of a creeping sense of quiet in himself, a thing that hadn’t been there in a long time. Cooking gave it to him. Love gave it to him, not that he’d been real lucky in that sense. If he was honest with himself, he also knew not drinking gave it to him. No nightmares when he left the booze alone. But also a little too much reality.
Smoking peacefully on a still mountain morning, just slightly high, Ivan Santino, who had been kicked down every time he tried to climb out of the shithole he’d been born to, wondered if this might be one more chance to make good.
A beat-up old Chevy pulled into the gravel drive. Ivan stood up, recognizing a buddy from the White Horse, a dive the next town over. He felt vaguely embarrassed to be caught high and dreaming of Patrick, as if the movie played on his forehead. “Hey, brother,” Ivan said as he opened the door. “What’s up?”
Damon came forward, his hair grimy beneath a blue stocking cap he never removed. “I killed an elk this morning,” he said, gesturing to a dent in his grille. “Dressed it right there, and wondered if you might be able to use some elk meat for your restaurant.”
Ivan turned down the corners of his mouth. “I don’t know, brother. Maybe. Why don’t you bring some on over in about an hour? I’ll be there then.”
“How much you looking to get?”
Damon named a figure that would keep him in JB for a few weeks. Ivan nodded. “Come talk to me at the restaurant. Bring some bones. There’s a chow mix hanging around who’ll go apeshit over them.”
On a Thursday afternoon in late September, Elena peered at the green card presented to her by a dark-eyed young man from Mexico. A man she hoped would be her last hire—a dishwasher. It looked to be in order, along with everything else, but good forgeries always did, didn’t they?
What a headache.
A bubble of irritation at the absurdity of the whole game burst between her eyebrows. Without Mexican workers, the service and agricultural businesses in Colorado—maybe all of America—would collapse. Unfortunately, there were so few Mexican workers allowed in on legal green cards that millions flooded over the border to claim the jobs illegally, forcing them to present forged documents that were only uncovered if the INS staged a raid, at which point thousands of workers were deported, only to flood back in again as soon as they could raise the money.
It was fruitless, demoralizing, and hugely expensive. Better to create a system of allowing more temporary workers to enter legally—and voilà! Crime down in every quadrant.
Unfortunately, she was stuck with the system as it was. Without a doubt, there were illegals in her kitchen, alongside those who had secured proper documents by some miracle. She had to be careful—the laws were tight in Colorado, despite the tourist-and agriculture-based economy—and while fines would be annoying, the bigger worry would be losing a chunk of employees in case of a raid.
The green card and Mexican driver’s license looked to be in order. Elena stood up and held out her hand. In Spanish, she said, “You’re hired. See you at eight a.m. Monday.”
He smiled and gave her the charming little bow that always made her think of medieval manners. Old world and courtly.
As he left, Julian came in through the back door. “How’s it going?”
The day was crisp, not yet full autumn, but no longer summer, and Elena could smell the sunlight on his jacket, a tweedy silk in oranges and browns. She wanted to pet it.
She straightened, tapping the stack of applications together. “Good. Finally.” She shook her head. “Staffing issues were more difficult than I anticipated.”
“Yeah, that’s always the trouble with a tourist economy…” He plucked a pitted black olive from a bowl. “…getting enough bodies to do the work.”
Elena waved the papers. “And the state has really cracked down on undocumented workers. I could have had twenty dishwashers and prep cooks by now, but their papers were not particularly believable.” As it was, half her kitchen spoke either Spanish or Vietnamese. The rest were ski bums, as were a lot of the front-of-the-house crew. “How is your end going?”
“Patrick is a gem,” he said.
“Absolutely. And you haven’t even seen him in action with customers.”
Ivan came in from smoking a cigarette. “Hey, Boss Man,” he said in his rumbling voice.
Pulling a lid from the steamer, he reached in and nimbly snatched a tamale wrapped in a corn husk. “I got something for both of you to try. Check this out.”
He grabbed a plate and dropped the bundle on it, smoothly snipped the tie around the corn husk and let the tamale roll out of its covering. A heavenly scent wafted into the air.
that?” Elena breathed, drawn to his magic.
He cut the tamale into slices. They held in elegant rounds, the masa firm but not dry, the color a faint pale red. A secret little smile played over his lips as he held out the plate. “Taste it.”
Elena took a fork from the basket on the pass-out bar and captured a small bite. The flavors exploded, spice and meat, filling her throat and sinuses, then sliding away to a lingering complexity that urged her to take another bite, start again.
“Oh, my God,” she murmured, obeying the urge for a second taste. She closed her eyes. Pressed her fingers over her lips as if the food might run away if she let it. A silken combination of subtle layers—earthy and gamey and dark, a thread of cinnamon and languid chiles and something she couldn’t quite capture. She looked at Julian. He was reaching for a second bite, too.
“This is fantastic,” he said. “What is it?”
Ivan shrugged, his eyes glowing turquoise with barely concealed pleasure. In his typical way, he crossed his arms, watched Elena’s mouth move, rubbed one finger on his chin. “Mole—I’ve been experimenting.”
“Yeah, but what’s the meat?”
“Elk.” He looked up as Patrick came into the kitchen, neat as a pin in a crisp blue shirt and jeans. “Some buddies of mine hit one on the highway out west and they dressed it and brought it home.”
“Is that legal?” Patrick asked.
“It is.” Ivan grinned. “The state patrol issues a limited license at the scene. It’s good for like a day.”
“Try it,” Ivan said. “I’d be interested in your wine pairings for something like this.”
Fastidiously, Patrick came forward and accepted the fork Ivan held out, and sampled the tamale with a studied expression of boredom. Grinning over his head at Julian, Elena waited for the flavors to ambush her sommelier.
Ivan waited, too, his body taut and tuned, those intense and hooded eyes trained on Patrick’s mouth as he chewed, watching as the taste expanded, and as if against his will, he darted a glance up at Ivan’s face, his eyes widening. “Oh!” he said. “That’s
Though he raised his chin in an attempt to control his expression, a slow, pleased smile spread over Ivan’s lips. “What kind of wine would you put with it?”
Patrick frowned, moving his lips, and reached for another bite. “It would have to be a very bold wine. Maybe something stronger. Tequila? An ale?”
“Yeah?” Ivan reached behind himself and took out another neatly tied tamale. “Take this one and try some pairings, let me know.”
Julian watched Patrick leave, as did Elena. The thin white skin at the back of his neck was flushed red. She looked back to Rasputin with his ragged jeans and big hands, who was also watching Patrick depart. His nostrils were slightly flared.
Elena pursed her lips. Who would do the other more damage? For all that Rasputin had his rough edges, there was something broken in him somewhere. That lostness of wounded child came from him in waves, the same eternal appeal of every bad boy. He glanced at her, smirking, and tossed a tamale from hand to hand.
“Elena, do you have a moment?” Julian asked.
“Sure.” She put the fork down. Wiped her fingers. “Ivan, that
the best tamale I’ve ever tasted. Write it up and we’ll put it on the menu. If you can come up with some other combinations that are that fantastic, we might do a whole tamale list.”
He saluted her without irony. “Thank you.”
“And…” She waited until Julian went ahead, and took a step closer to Ivan, narrowing her eyes in warning. “…leave my sommelier alone.”
His eyes were mocking. “He’s not my type,” he drawled, and looked down Elena’s shirt.
“You heard me.” She shucked her apron as she headed to her office.
Julian stood in the center of the tiny room, admiring a red glass chile paperweight. He put it down as she came in.
She had not seen much of him these past few weeks, and it was hard not to notice too many things all at once—his elegant hands and the sunlight and apple scent of him and his cheekbones. A shimmer moved over her inner wrists, into her palms. “Shall I close the door?”
“Not at all. I was just wondering if you have some time to get out and do some sampling at the other restaurants in town. Time’s getting short. I’m particularly interested in getting a feel for prices in this market.”
“Good idea.” She crossed her arms, trying not to imagine how pleasant it would be to have him to herself for a couple of hours. “This is probably the last night we’ve got before the insanity begins.”
His black eyes were direct. Businesslike. “Yeah, we should have done it sooner, but I could see you were swamped.”
“Okay.” She yawned, and covered her mouth. “Sorry. I guess I’ll go home and get a nap. What are you going to wear?”
She gave him a quizzical chuckle. “Really?”
He lifted one shoulder. “Actually, yeah. Not much of one, but enough to make people overlook me.”
Elena doubted anyone would overlook him, even in a disguise, but that was just her hormones talking. The trouble with not having sex was that she wasn’t having sex. “What kind of disguise?”
He winked. “You’ll see.”
“But I’m still not sure what I should be wearing. Dressed up or dressed down?”
“Dressed up, but not too up.”
“Good.” He clasped those long hands. “One more thing. How would you feel about serving my business associates at my home instead of here?”
“The tasting menu?”
She hesitated. “A home kitchen is not usually the most ideal.”
“This is…uh…” He touched his eyebrow, almost an apology. “…a little higher end than most home kitchens. I’d be happy to show it to you.”
“Is there a particular reason you want to do it that way?”
Julian inclined his head. Light skated over the high brow. “It’s more intimate. We’re working on a movie deal and I want it to go my way.”
“I keep forgetting you’re a big-time movie guy.”
“Yeah, that’s me. Big-time movie guy.”
“You’re the boss,” she said. “If you want to do it at your place, let’s do it there. I’ll take a look at the kitchen and figure out what we need. If the prep is done beforehand, Ivan and I should be able to handle the cooking.”
“And we need Patrick to serve. This crowd will appreciate him.”
Elena smiled. “All right. Let’s figure out a time to check out your kitchen, then.”
“How about now?”
She glanced up at the clock. “I’ve got my dog.”
“Bring him. My daughter will adore him.”
Elena had lived in other places where money was visible, or at least you knew it lurked close by. She’d worked in restaurants where a meal for two easily cost hundreds, even thousands with a few good bottles of wine. But in Aspen, luxury leaked from every detail of every shop and home, in the detailing of her condo and the mansions discreetly peeking from stands of trees or towering into the heavens from a hilltop. Aspen wasn’t just wealthy, it was stratospheric—royals and movie stars and Saudis had homes there.
Even after just a few weeks, Elena had grown somewhat accustomed to it, and she didn’t even blink when she discovered that Julian drove a Range Rover, black, which probably cost close to her annual salary. In a city, it would have been ostentatious. In the high country, the four-wheel drive and navigability would be a boon through the heavy winters. Julian let Alvin jump into the rubberized back hold, and they drove off into the hills, finally turning into a long, graveled drive that climbed through a grove of mixed aspens and lodgepole pines.
Elena commented, “The first yellow leaves I’ve seen.”