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  • Written by Barbara O'Neal
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On Sale: December 30, 2008
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Tags for this book (powered by Library Thing)
romance (12) fiction (10) cooking (5) food (4)
romance (12) fiction (10) cooking (5) food (4)
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this sumptuous new novel, Barbara O’Neal offers readers a celebration of food, family, and love as a woman searches for the elusive ingredient we’re all hoping to find….

It’s the opportunity Elena Alvarez has been waiting for–the challenge of running her own kitchen in a world-class restaurant. Haunted by an accident of which she was the lone survivor, Elena knows better than anyone how to survive the odds. With her faithful dog, Alvin, and her grandmother’s recipes, Elena arrives in Colorado to find a restaurant in as desperate need of a fresh start as she is–and a man whose passionate approach to food and life rivals her own. Owner Julian Liswood is a name many people know but a man few do. He’s come to Aspen with a troubled teenage daughter and a dream of the kind of stability and love only a family can provide. But for Elena, old ghosts don’t die quietly, yet a chance to find happiness at last is worth the risk.

Excerpt

Chapter One


Elena 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 commis, 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
BLUE TURTLE CHEF SAYS LIFE AS A FEMALE IN
THE KITCHEN IS NOT EASY, BUT WORTH IT


"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 your kitchen!" she said, slamming her knife down on the counter. "You have the title 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 chef 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 restaurant 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 off, 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.

Looked away.

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."

"Dmitri!"

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."

"Si."

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.

This was her home, not some faraway town. A blister of fury zapped from the base of her spine through the top of her head. Bastard. How dare 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 one place. Her place.

Now what?

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. "Bonjour," 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, that 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?"

"Sure."

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."
He skimmed the jacket from his shoulders. "I don't think it's me."

A woman held up the newspaper and pointed to the picture. She waved, smiling. "Oh," Elena said, pleased. She waved back.

"Your first taste of fame?"

She thought of long ago, the New Mexico newspapers. But that had been more notoriety than fame, so dark and heavy she'd had to flee to escape it. "In a way," she said, then shifted her attention back to him. "But you're no stranger to it, are you?"

"I am not usually recognized for myself," he said, "but for the wives I have unwisely collected."

His rueful straightforwardness disarmed her, and Elena laughed, the sound shaking loose from some rusty place in her chest. His wives were tabloid fodder, starlets who began their careers in the teen slasher flicks that had made him his fortune. Restaurants were a sideline. Celebrity owners were not always the most adept, but Julian Liswood had earned the respect of the press and—harder to capture—his workforce. The Blue Turtle was the third he'd opened to spectacular success.

Elena said, "They have been rather beautiful wives, as I recall."

"Well, you know what they say: never marry a girl prettier than you."

She thought, with a pang, of Dmitri. "Been there."

"Hard to imagine."

"Oh, believe me—" She almost said, there have been so many men, but that would have been too frank. Outside, rain began to splat against the window. She shivered slightly. Pulling her cup toward her, she said, "Now, tell me, Mr. Liswood, what do you have in mind?"

"Please call me Julian."

"I'll try. Julian."

He took his time, stirring a lump of rough brown sugar into his coffee with a tiny spoon. His oval nails were manicured, and she wondered what kind of man had time for something like that. But of course, in his world, the veneer of such details would be required. She envisioned a cocktail party sparkling with beautiful people, manned by obsequious servers. It made her nervous.
Barbara O'Neal|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal - The Lost Recipe for Happiness
Barbara O'Neal fell in love with restaurants and the secret language of spoons when she was sixteen. She spent more than a decade in various restaurants, dives to cafes to high cuisine, before selling his first novel. O'Neal teaches workshops nationally and internationally, and lives with her partner, a British endurance athlete, in Colorado Springs.

Author Q&A

The Magic of Restaurants
by Barbara O’Neal


I fell headlong in love with restaurants at the age of eight, when my grandfather, a charming rascal who looked very like Clark Gable, bought a diner in Temecula, California. He’d never run one, but then he’d never had a pharmacy, either, and he’d done that in Fort Worth. None of us had ever even been to California. My grandmother was mad about it for at least ten years, but she moved with him and together they operated Ed’s Kitchen.

The restaurant sat at the bottom of a hill, right on the main drag through town. We had to walk down there from my grandmother’s house. The land was rural, with horses and avocado groves along the way, and grass so tall we played hide and seek in it. My grandmother waited tables, and so did my mother for a time. They were both pretty and earned good tips.

A counter filled the center of the dining room, with stools that spun and had a little ring of chrome around the seat. I sat on them, swinging my legs, and watched my grandfather, looking swarthy in chef whites, cooking at the grill with a dark curl falling rakishly on his forehead. We children were not allowed in the kitchen, so this was as close as I ever got. On the counter sat a pie safe, three pies high, and although it was rare indeed that we ever got to eat any, I admired them daily: pale apples or jewel-colored berries spilling out of a buttery crust; pecans in tidy circle patterns over the clear middle. Pie remains my extravagance of choice, the wickedness I will most likely choose from a desert menu.

Everything about Ed’s Kitchen was enchanting: the customers and the bustle, the shouts of orders, the practically visible fragrance of coffee brewing. My mother shined. She was happy in that restaurant. My grandmother laughed when men flirted with her, practically the only time she ever did in those years.

My father pined for his mountains, so we moved back to Colorado, and I didn’t think about restaurants again until I was sixteen and looking for a job. The local mall had a Greek-run sandwich, ice cream and chocolatiers called Michelle’s. The waitresses all wore red or blue velvet caps with gold braiding and shiny black nylon uniforms with a white flounce at the neck. That hat was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, as medieval as Juliet, and I knew my long blonde hair would look fantastic beneath it. They didn’t need help when I began to apply, and I had no experience, but I was relentless–every week I went back to ask about my application until the manager finally gave in and hired me.

From the first day, I was smitten. Smitten by the presentation of a single slice of baklava, dripping with honey; by the soda fountain and the grill; smitten by Greek music playing in the background, and the companionable after-hours rituals of cleaning up. I loved my white nylon apron, and pockets heavy with tips and the smell of industrial dishwasher detergent. I never, ever let a coffee cup go empty because my grandpa told me people will forgive you for anything if they have enough coffee. It tends to be true.

Every restaurant is its own country, with it’s politics and structure, internal strife and power plays. After three years in the Old World land of Michelle’s, I landed in a high-end Mexican restaurant where I fell under the enchantment of chiles. Here, the honey was drizzled over sopapillas. Here, we had to take turns crushing the giant bags of hot red chiles that came in from New Mexico, learning how to avoid blistered fingers and seared sinuses. To chase away a virus, we ate the hottest green chile stew we could bear. It was at Papa Felipe’s that I learned to drink tequila, and where the doe-eyed cook from Chihuahua would send the starving students home with leftover sopapillas. In my long sojourn there, I gathered scars all over my hands from burns and broken plates and various other mishaps. It’s the way it goes.

There were other restaurants, placed I visited briefly, and each of them taught me something. There was the troubled seafood place, popular with the aging yacht club set, where I learned to make an old fashioned by crushing a cherry and an orange in the bottom of a highball glass with a teaspoon of sugar. There was the corporate regime of a chain restaurant that served a million varieties of hamburgers that taught me how to manage a rush. Others, too fleeting to recall.

All of them turned me into a writer in love with food and all the marvelous details that go into creating dishes, menus, restaurants, service. Food, like love and sex and children, is one of the most powerful cornerstones in our lives, and a great dish is a moment of pure love, prepared, offered, accepted and devoured.

And so The Lost Recipe for Happiness was born. Elena Alvarez is not me, though all of our characters are born of us in some way. She is the chef I would be if I were braver—brilliant and intuitive, fierce and kind. After a terrible accident when she was a teenager, Elena found her salvation in restaurants, and she’s battled her way to the top of the game as a chef who has lived and worked all over the world. Now, she has an opportunity to build her own kitchen and menu and staff, starting over in a failed restaurant in Aspen with an entire cast of characters who will, perhaps become a family she can, at last, call her own.

As I wrote, I cooked and cooked, learning the landscape of Elena’s world as I tested recipes and fed my beloved tidbits and scowled over things that didn’t work. As I cooked, a book was born and now comes to you. Perhaps you’ll read and cook, cook and read. Bon appetit!

Author Q&A


Top Ten Favorite Foods
by Barbara O'Neal

1. Root beer floats with my grandmother at the A&W Root Beer. The long spoons, the milky suds, the sugary brown crystals on top of the ice cream, and my grandmother across the table, telling a story.

2. Roast rabbit, in a very small southern Italian village. I was not about to eat something so cute and fluffy, something you could cuddle, but the woman serving us insisted that I would mourn forever if I didn’t try it. It arrived with chicory and mashed fava beans and red wine. The chicory was too bitter for my tastes, but the rabbit tasted like summer, like a sunny grassy field. Rich and deep, broad and salty, a flavor that fills your whole mouth.

3. Goat cheese, fresh tomatoes, and cucumbers stuffed into a baguette; lunch on a hiking tour in the French alps. The air smelled of the wild thyme we had crushed beneath our boots.

4. Pork and avocado burritos at Los Tres, a family business tucked into a corner of the food court of the Pueblo, Colorado mall, everything served on paper plates with plastic spoons by the wife and the cousins and the sisters and brothers while a television plays talk shows in the corner. Local green chiles and slippery, mushy chunks of avocado mixed with slow roasted pork, and long-simmered, very spicy chile. It also smells heavenly.

5. Homemade sausage gravy served over his secret recipe buttermilk biscuits, as made by my children’s father every Sunday through their young years.

6. A picnic served on the sidelines of a grassy field where Indian computer geeks played cricket. The day was cloudy, the game incomprehensible, but my new boyfriend–who did not cook at all–had assembled the offering to show me what an English-style picnic would look like. There were dozens of dishes, each individually set out in its own container, crisp long Romaine lettuce leaves and sliced tomatoes and onions, tidy slices of bread and chunky Branston pickle and sliced meats and ginger beer. It started to rain, but my British partner was prepared for that, too, and we ate it all under a giant umbrella, watching cricket and eating cold cuts and shivering companionably in the damp.

7.  Pears. All pears, even tinny-tasting canned pears in heavy syrup, but especially brown bosc pears straight out of the orchards.

8. A bagel smeared with Marmite and a hot cup of sweet milky tea poured from a thermos, served at the summit of Pikes Peak by the same slightly batty Brit. We had just survived a lightning storm and hours of hail while manning a water station during the Pikes Peak Ascent, an extreme trail run. Maybe the best meal I’ve ever eaten.

9. Bradon roast salmon with whiskey sauce, eaten on the freezing cold banks of Loch Fyne. I wasn’t going to try it because someone force-fed me salmon from a can as a child and I hated it. Our guide gently suggested this might be a lot different. It tasted of peat and smoke and the great salt sea and the cold winds pouring down Highland slopes and the musky dark heart of Scotland.

10. My own tamales, in all their forms. It took me a long time to master them, and it is a gigantic undertaking, a whole day of cooking, and smelling spices, and cooking the duck or the pork to falling-apart tenderness, and spreading masa just right on husks, and tying them closed, and steaming them, and then waiting and waiting, and eating that very first one out of the pot, rolling it out steaming onto a plate and taking the first bite and knowing it was worth every second. Every second.

Praise

Praise

"As dark and deep and sweet as chocolate...I wanted to live in this book." —Sarah Addison Allen, New York Times bestselling author

“A delectable banquet for the reader, celebrating the things that matter most–family, friendship, food, and the healing power of love.” —Susan Wiggs, New York Times bestselling author
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

Haunted by an accident of which she was the lone survivor, Elena Alvarez knows how to defy the odds. And when she is suddenly offered the opportunity she’s been waiting for–the challenge of running her own kitchen in a world-class restaurant–she knows it is a chance she has to take, even if it does mean relocating to Aspen, where she doesn’t know a soul, and usurping the job of a notably volatile chef. So with her faithful dog and her grandmother’s recipes, she arrives in Colorado to find a restaurant in as desperate need of a fresh start as she is–and a man whose passionate approach to food and life rivals her own. For Elena, old ghosts don’t die quietly, but some remain with her for a reason. And, through all the ups and downs, she knows the chance for happiness is worth every risk.

The following questions are intended to enhance your reading of this unique and affecting Bantam Discovery debut novel.

Discussion Guides

1. What was your first impression of Elena as a character? What about Julian? How did your view of them change throughout the novel? In what ways did each of them surprise you?

2. Discuss the role of food and cooking In The Lost Recipe for Happiness. What did food mean to each of the characters? What meals left the strongest impression with you as a reader? What tastes were you reminded of? What do you think this added to the reading experience?

3. Consider the town of Aspen itself. It seems that each of the characters is there for a reason. What brings each of them to Aspen, and what keeps them there? Who do you think will stay, and who will eventually move on? Why is this a good setting for a book like this?

4. There are several secrets and betrayals in The Lost Recipe for Happiness. Was there any point where a secret, once revealed, shocked you? Were you surprised by any other character’s reaction to a revelation? How would you have reacted to each admission?

5. Why does Julian wait so long to disclose the truth about his screenplay to Elena? What does his reticence tell you about him?

6. Several times throughout the book, Elena and others discuss the three most memorable foods they’ve ever eaten. What are yours, and why?

7. Discuss the relationship between Patrick and Ivan. What do they see in each other? Do you think this is a relationship that will stand the test of time?

8. The Lost Recipe for Happiness is written mostly from Elena’s point of view, but we occasionally hear from the other characters as well. What did the chapters from Julian and Ivan’s perspective add to your understanding of the story?

9. As the child of an actress, Portia has some very real issues with her body image. Consider the argument she has with her father toward the end of Chapter 13. What did you think of her argument? Is it possible for an overweight woman to be truly successful? Is it easier for men in this sense?

10. Many of the characters in this novel have sustained some kind of damage–physical or emotional–from their childhood. In what ways does this manifest itself, and what does it take for each of them to move on?

11. Throughout The Lost Recipe for Happiness, there is discussion about the idea that each person has a soul mate. Do you think this is true in the world of this novel? What about in real life?

12. Elena carries some very real ghosts of her past along with her, as well as the metaphorical ghosts of her memories. How did you feel about the ghosts in the novel? What role did they play in Elena’s life? Do you think that Isobel will be back, or has she truly left Elena for good?


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