On and On and On
"No, absolutely, not." Napoleon sat back from the table, arms crossed.
"But, Napoleon, he could never say no to you." Marilyn Dozier was not a woman who took no for an answer.
"Are you kidding? No is usually all Illya says to me." That drew a snicker from some of the assembled members of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. Napoleon chose to ignore them.
"He is the best chef in all of the Sierra foothills, maybe even the entire state, why wouldn't he want to be part of a cook off?" This was Benny Chan. He could trace his roots back to the start of Jackson, when it was a clutter of buildings and nothing more. Now he owned three apartment buildings, two office complexes, and half a dozen businesses. At one point, he even owned Taste, but Illya has long since paid off that mortgage.
"Because he's done that and paid his dues." And once a month, I have to dust all the damn awards on the mantle he added mentally. Illya had stuffed everything into the back of a closet. Those awards represented a very hard time in Illya's life. Who was he kidding? It had been hard for both of them as they tried to exist without each other. His left hand dropped to his lap and his fingers began to toy with his wedding band.
"And it would be a way to celebrate our local cuisine. Each chef will get a mystery basket to work with and a secret ingredient. Just think what it would mean to Jackson and for his business." Jacob Meyers always was worried about boosting his business. He couldn't understand that Illya was happy with Taste the way it was.
"Doesn't he do enough for Jackson now? And not just for Jackson, for the outlying communities? Have you stopped to think how they will feel when Illya kicks their best chefs' collective asses? Because he would." Napoleon knew they didn't know just how aggressive Illya could be when cornered and Napoleon had no doubt that Illya would feel backed into one. He'd come out punching or worse...
"What if each chef played for a favorite charity?" Gail Dennison was one of the quieter members of the committee.
"That would be worse. Illya wouldn't take any prisoners then. Is Jackson ready to take that chance?" Napoleon tempered his tone for her. She always seemed ready to run crying from the room.
"Just ask him, Napoleon, that's all we're saying. If he says no, then we'll pick someone else... someone inferior." Benny spoke up again and he gave Napoleon this slicker than oil on water smile. Napoleon clenched his fist beneath the table and counted to ten. There were times when he wished he'd never agreed to sit on this committee. It had been good for Taste and Vinea and they had secured a place in the community as business people, but Napoleon did not like this thinly disguised attempt at railroading his partner into something.
Marilyn apparently knew when it was time to switch gears. "We'll put that back on the agenda for our next meeting. So, next, parking fees..."
Napoleon drove quickly from Marilyn's house back into Jackson. Here businesses took up residence wherever they could find a spot, either in a storefront, down an alley or in someone's front room. Marilyn ran her real estate business out of her living room. Napoleon had to admit it was much more comfortable than sitting around the conference table in Waverly's office.
He frowned as he pulled into their driveway and tried to pinpoint a memory. It was an odd thing. He knew there were great chunks of his life that he no longer remembered, but it didn't bother him. What did bother him were the aches and pains he had, yet having no conscious memory of what caused them.
The night air was cool and there was the smell of rain in the air. It had sprinkled while he was in the meeting and Napoleon found himself wondering if the promised rain was finally going to arrive. They certainly could use it. It had been a really dry winter. His left arm had an ache deep in the bone and that usually meant rain.
He climbed from the car and walked up to the porch. His hand reached out for the doorknob and suddenly he jumped when he heard a voice. "It was a long meeting."
Napoleon took a breath. As an agent, he would have had a weapon out and armed himself by now. It took him a moment to register the speaker as his lover and partner, Illya Kuryakin.
He looked around the porch and finally saw a shape leaning against the rail. "Yes, it was a lengthy agenda tonight. Elections are coming up and some of the members are anxious to get certain items resolved." Napoleon waited, but Illya didn't move. That was... curious. "Are you all right?"
The word shot through Napoleon as effectively as a bullet. Before he'd left for the meeting, they'd spent a quiet day puttering around the house. Illya was trying to perfect a cocoa-rubbed pork loin for the restaurant and Napoleon was settling some accounts for Vinea. It had been the picture of domestic bliss. They laughed and joked around in the hours before he'd left and now this. "Illya, what's wrong?"
"Carl?" Napoleon rapidly sifted through the names of people he knew businesswise and came up with nothing.
"Carl was the owner of Bambridge. He and Michael."
"Was? What happened?"
"Michael's dead... Carl is selling the place to try and cover the hospital bills. He was offering me some of Michael's equipment. I didn't need anything, but I took it anyhow."
"Of course. What happened?"
Illya took a deep breath. "They attended a conference in the City. Alcohol started to flow and they found themselves a couple of similarly inclined guys and had a party. One of them had AIDS and the rest, as they say, is history."
"Oh, my god," Napoleon let his voice trail off. AIDS was a death sentence with no escape out.
"Carl is still okay. For one reason or another, they stopped being intimate. First Michael was tired and thought he was coming down with the flu. They had closed the kitchen for renovations and Michael was using the time to work up a new menu and Carl thought it was just overwork and nerves. You know how it goes sometimes." Napoleon nodded. He knew indeed what it was like to try and distract Illya when he was focused on a new menu. "Then Michael collapsed in the kitchen just when they were getting ready to reopen. When they admitted him, they took a blood test and... "
"Thank God he wasn't serving guests." Heedless of the fact that they were on the front porch, Napoleon moved to embrace Illya and offer him solace. It was like holding ice.
"He was only thirty nine, Napoleon. How many more of us are going to have to fall before someone sits up and takes notice?"
"I don't know."
"Just because it targets specific groups, it's okay?"
"Of course not."
"Then why isn't anyone stopping this?"
"I can't answer that." Napoleon touched his forehead to Illya's. "I didn't know you two were close."
"We aren't... weren't. It's just... what if it were Matt or Rocky or Winston?" A shiver ran through Illya.
"It isn't and we can only hope that they'll stay safe. We can't protect the world, Illya, just each other."
"We used to."
"Yes, we used to, but not anymore." Napoleon kissed him, surprised at the taste of alcohol on Illya's lips. It had been quite some time since Illya drank anything more potent than wine. "Let's go in. You're like ice."
"Just a few minutes more. When I'm cold, I know I'm still alive."
"Trust me, any longer out here and you won't be." Napoleon slipped a hand to the small of Illya's back and pressed. For a moment, there was resistance, then the tension released and Illya nodded.
They walked into the small house and Illya immediately headed for the kitchen. Napoleon knew that when Illya was angry or frustrated, he would head for the one spot where he found solace. For a moment, Napoleon was jealous, but he silently chuckled to himself. Imagine being jealous over a room in the house.
He hung up his coat and made sure the door was locked before following Illya.
When they had a day off, Illya would frequently make lunch their big meal, followed by something lighter at night. Today, Illya had been so engrossed in cooking, lunch and Napoleon had caught him by surprise around three o'clock.
A small tabby ambled up to Napoleon, rubbing first against his pant leg and then draping herself over his boot.
"You must have been a biker in your former life, Berra," he said. "I have never seen a cat with your passion for leather." That being the case, Napoleon made sure the boots were in the closet and the door shut before joining Illya in the kitchen.
Illya had his back to Napoleon, washing dishes in the sink. Most items went into an industrial dish washer, but some items Illya preferred to wash by hand, like his knives.
Napoleon headed for the refrigerator and hunted around until he found what he wanted. Yesterday's meatloaf sat plated and waiting just for him. There was nothing Napoleon enjoyed quite as much as a meatloaf sandwich.
"What are you doing? You just had lunch."
"Amante, that was nearly six hours ago."
Illya frowned and snatched his Rolex off the window ledge, squinting at it. "Sorry, I guess that I lost track of time. " He smiled apologetically. "I'll make you something."
"Why don't you sit and let me make you something?" Napoleon gestured toward a book-covered chair. "By the time you clear that off, I will be done."
"Funny guy." The Russian picked up a sheet of paper and started to scan it, Napoleon forgotten.
With Illya thus occupied, Napoleon carried the meatloaf to the counter. Then he rummaged around in a drawer until he found a spatula and cut a thick slice. Then he selected a loaf of Jesus' potato bread and sliced two pieces off.
As he assembled the sandwich, he whistled quietly to himself, watching Illya out of the corner of his eye. The blond looked tired and Napoleon was glad that they had the night in and tomorrow off. He cut the sandwich into two pieces, plated them, and added some of his favorite chips.
Just as he predicted, Illya had just managed to get the last receipt off the cushion when the plates went down. Napoleon returned the rest of the meatloaf to the refrigerator, grabbed two cans of beer and carried those to the table as well.
"The only thing to have with a sandwich of these proportions." Napoleon sat, popped the top of his can and set it aside. He'd started thinking about this sandwich halfway through Meyers' financial report. Now it was a reality.
He took a bite, eyes closed. The sweet soft bread melted against the tanginess of the sauce Illya used to bake the dish in. Five different meats went into something that used to be a tossed-together, dried-up Wednesday night childhood staple. Napoleon hated meatloaf, until he tasted Illya's. Now he petitioned for it at least once a month if not twice. It was a joke these days, but Napoleon noticed it was appearing more regularly than it used to.
"Should I leave you two alone?" Illya selected a chip and chewed it slowly, without enjoyment.
"Not at all. This is something that's more fun the more people involved." Napoleon wiped his fingers off on a paper towel and reached out to cup Illya's face. "What's wrong, Illya? Really wrong, I mean. You weren't close to Michael or even Carl."
"He wasn't much of a chef. His sauces were thick and tasteless, his entrees were without imagination..." Illya pulled away from Napoleon and pushed his sandwich aside. "So much for speaking well of the dead. I've fail at that as well."
"It's okay, you know, to not. Not every dead person was a saint or a hero." Napoleon paused to take another bite, ignoring the plaintive meow at his feet. Moutard was turning himself inside out for a taste. "What have you failed at, Illya?"
"Nothing, everything, I don't know... I feel angry and frustrated that I can't control this disease. I want to slap people for not taking precautions and subjecting their loved ones to such danger simply because they don't like the feel of latex. I don't know how I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by people who I care about... and worry about so much."
"Illya, you don't need to worry about Matt and Rocky. Winston, he's old enough to know about the dangers of unprotected sex. He's not stupid."
"But he is young... and young people tend to have a sense of invincibility that governs their common sense. I just..."
Napoleon pushed Illya's plate back to him. "Worry. I keep telling you that's my job. Now, please eat that. It is really is wonderful, you know."
"I'm glad you like it." Illya took a bite and chewed. Napoleon knew he was taking the food apart mentally, deciding what worked and what didn't. It would not be the same meatloaf next time around.
"Eat up and let's go to bed."
"Can't," Illya mumbled around his sandwich. He made a gesture with his beer can. "The kitchen is a mess."
"And it will be a mess in the morning. Right now, I think there's something else you need more than a clean kitchen."
"I don't feel like—
"I know," Napoleon interrupted quickly. "And that's not what I'm talking about."
Illya looked around the kitchen and sighed. "I really should -"
"Listen to me," Napoleon finished smoothly, holding out his hand. There are times when you take precedence over dirty dishes. "Come on, Amante."
"How do you have this power over me?" Illya stood and carried his plate to the sink. He started to reach for the faucet and Napoleon snatched up the outstretched hand, bringing the fingers to his lips and kissing them gently.
"Senior agent by two years," he murmured and Illya finally grinned that wide unaffected smile that had cost Napoleon his heart.
Napoleon woke sometime around midnight and heard the wind rattling and the rain hitting the windows. The promised storm had finally arrived. There was a warm lump snuggled against him and Napoleon slipped an arm between Illya's arm and side, to hold him even closer.
Napoleon woke again, this time to the grey light of early morning. The rain was still coming down, lulling him, bidding him to stay in bed. Besides the rain, he could hear the shower running.
Illya's up early, he thought as he yawned and burrowed further into the still enticingly- cozy blankets and pillows. He'd just doze until Illya was finished and then get up.
The next time Napoleon woke, his inner clock told him it was late morning. He sat up and looked around the room. Moutard was sleeping on the bottom of the bed on Illya's side and rolled over when Napoleon moved.
"Hey, cat, it looks like we're the two laze-abouts today." He toyed with the idea of staying in bed a bit longer, but without Illya the idea just didn't have the same attraction. Now if he could track down his partner, well, that would be a different matter.
He showered, dressed in a pair of warm slacks and a sweater before heading downstairs. The second story of the little house was always the warm spot and it wasn't today. That told Napoleon that Illya was probably not in residence at the moment.
Sure enough, a quick check assured him of his being alone in the place, but as he glanced out the window, he saw lights on in the restaurant.
He opened the front door and shivered as a gust of wind met him. How it could get so cold so fast was still a mystery to him. He grabbed a jacket, even though Taste was less than a couple hundred feet from the house.
He went around to the kitchen entrance and stepped out of the wind and rain. Instantly the warmth and bustle of the kitchen swept him into its cocoon.
Henry and Rand were chopping vegetables and arguing about the lyrics to a song, but it was a modern tune Napoleon didn't recognize. Matt was standing close to Winston, giving him instruction upon cooking this or that. Both men glanced up, but didn't pause in their discussion.
Napoleon smiled at his nephew, amazed at how this self-assured young man had grown from the small bundle his sister had handed to him one night so many years earlier. Winston had been the only one of his sister's five children whose birth Napoleon had been present for and now here Winston was, part of their little family group.
Then Napoleon realized with a shock, while this was a perfectly normal scene for most days, this was Tuesday and the restaurant was closed.
He turned to Rand, who was closest. "What's going on here?"
"You're going to have to ask Chef. He called and invited me over for a cup of coffee." He laughed. "I get into more trouble over coffee."
"Matt?" Napoleon tried him next.
"Chiedere il Chef." Matt waved a hand towards the office. "Thinner, Win, they must be paper thin. They must be thin enough to be transparent"
"Ask Chef? Ask him what?" When no one responded, Napoleon headed back towards the closet, laughingly called an office, and stuck his head around the frame.
Illya was sitting at a desk. The fingers of one hand were tangled in his hair and the other hand was using a pencil to drum out a fast staccato beat on a pad of paper.
"Illya? Amante, what is going on?"
Illya glanced up at him and dropped his hands. "Just one question. Did you tell them I would do it?"
"Do it? Do what?"
"The cooking competition."
"Quite the contrary. I refused to even ask you. I thought it would put you in a compromised position, especially with your background in competitive cooking." Napoleon looked back towards the kitchen.
"I got a call from a reporter early this morning asking me who was going to be on my cooking team. Apparently, a member of the Chamber called the paper last night and told them that Taste had agreed to a cook off with three other chefs."
Napoleon started to do a slow burn. "We shelved that for discussion for a later date."
"Well, apparently, the later date was after you left last night. The reporter said it was a seven to one decision, and one abstention. I think we can safely ascertain who the abstention was."
"Illya, I swear... I knew how something like that would compromise you."
"But not as much as refusing to participate might. It would be a black eye for the restaurant if we refused to be part of the competition once named. In short, they have us between a rock and a hard place."
"Do you have any paper?" Napoleon snapped.
Illya glanced down at the pad he'd been scribbling on and pushed it towards him. "Why?"
"I'm tendering my resignation. No one has the right to manipulate you like this." Napoleon reached out and Illya caught the hand and squeezed the fingers tenderly before bringing them to his lips.
"It's okay, Napoleon. I mean, it's not okay. They back-doored you and I know how that feels. If you want to resign, then by all means do so, but for now, I need you on the front lines for me. I've already been in contact with the other chefs."
Napoleon stared into the blue eyes and felt his tension start to wane. "Who are they?"
"Gilbert from Kanes, Zac from Zachery Jacques and Vivian from V's."
"That's insane." He practically laughed. "They are all okay cooks, but not one of those places has the accolades behind it that Taste does. They simply aren't of yours or Matthew's caliber, Illya. To take either of you on would be nothing short of professional suicide."
"I would agree. Or the cooking experience—only Zac has been cooking longer than me and he's not been professionally trained."
"Don't dismiss him, cara," Matt said, entering the office. "He's very skilled and very treacherous."
"But he's still being set up, all of them are," Napoleon argued. "He has to see that. Who on the West Coast could even hold a candle to you two."
"Cara, you are sweet." To Illya, Matt continued. "You should kiss him or I will.
Illya smiled and kissed the hand he was still holding. "Thank you, but I think you are a bit too close to the problem, Napoleon. However, there is a loophole that they never thought of and we will employ it to our benefit."
"What's that?" Napoleon was starting to see the upside of the situation. If Illya was calm and relaxed, then the man had to have something up his sleeve.
"The reporter said that the chef from Taste would compete. Taste has three chefs: me, Matthew, and Winston. Granted Winston may be junior member of the staff, but he still holds the title of chef. This would be very good experience for him and it certainly isn't my fault if they weren't specific enough with their announcement. I have already given the reporter Winston's name."
Slowly, the corners of Napoleon's mouth began to curl upwards. "Smart Russian."
Illya released Napoleon's hand and nodded. "I didn't get to wear the stylish pants and fancy headgear just because I look good in it. Matt will be his assistant, along with Rand or Henry. He will have to choose between them."
"Aren't you allowed four members on a team?"
"Yes, but I still have a restaurant to run. I need someone here to help me, especially since I will have to be cooking while they are practicing. They will need someone to help out with keeping things clean and moving. He can pick his fourth member from the kitchen staff."
"How can you practice? The main ingredient is secret."
Illya grinned and looked at Matt, who was chuckling.
"Cara, in these things the only one who doesn't know the secret ingredient is the audience. We are told well in advance. Otherwise, how would we prepare?" Matt glanced around the small office. "Chef, do you have the dish catalog? I think we will need to order new presentation dishes for the event."
"You mean you know already what the secret ingredient is?" Napoleon was startled. I thought it was supposed to test your ability to create on the spot."
"The secret ingredient is cherries, according to Zac, but I will check that out independently. You can't really trust a competitor to be completely forthright." Illya pushed a stack of papers around on the desk until he found the catalog. "Try not to break the bank with this, Matthew. Napoleon, while you are still out of the loop, I would suggest you enjoy it. After all, it's your day off."
"It's everyone's day off."
"Not anymore. Until the competition, we will have to use the days the restaurant is closed to practice. I hope you like cherries. I suspect we will both be eating a lot of them before the next month is out."
Napoleon was working the New York Times crossword puzzle when he heard a light knock on the door. He set the paper aside and hurried to answer it. Old habits made him look first, then he opened the door to Gail Dennison.
"Gail, good, very cold, afternoon. Won't you come in?" He ushered her in and held out a hand for her jacket. "Go stand by the fire. This place is always chilly."
"I don't think you'll want me around once you hear what's happened, Napoleon."
"Nonsense. I was just having some tea. Would you like a cup?"
At the silence, Napoleon looked over and smiled smugly. Gail was staring at the awards displayed on the mantle.
"You weren't joking, were you? About Chef?"
"You can call him Illya. It is his name. And, no, I wasn't. He and Matt nearly drove themselves to collapse getting those."
"It was how they made the down payment on Taste. Neither of them is a U.S. citizen and the bank thought they were flight risks and wouldn't give them a loan." Napoleon came to stand beside her. "So they did what they knew how to do."
"Wouldn't you have given them the money?"
Napoleon sighed, but inwardly was on alert. She was asking questions he wasn't sure he wanted to answer. "Yes, but Illya and I had had a parting of the ways a couple of years earlier. I didn't even know where he was, much less that he'd gone into the culinary industry. When I knew him, his expertise was pretty much limited to cereal and coffee." He led her to a chair. "You're coming to tell me about the cook off? And that Taste has been named one of the competitors?"
"Wait... how did you...?"
"A reporter called Illya this morning for his comments." Napoleon sat down and poured a cup of tea for her. He'd secretly hoped Illya would have wandered in by now, but he'd not seen his lover since leaving him five hour hours earlier. He'd brought out an extra cup, just in case. Now he passed that cup to her and watched, waiting to see if old habits were just that.
"I'm... I'm sorry, Napoleon, I argued with them. I told them it wasn't right. I argued that the meeting was over and this was out of order, but I was pretty much told to shut up or leave. Benny said you were too close to the situation and that we needed to proceed without you. "
"I can understand your position, Gail."
"Well, I came to apologize to you and to... Illya, if he'll let me."
Napoleon leaned over to grab a phone and dialed. He waited until a voice answered. "Rand, can you tell Illya that I need to see him in the house? Thanks!"
"Now he'll be angry with me for interfering with his work. I'm being such a pest."
"I would like to know what the Chamber thinks this is going to do for the community. If anything, this has the potential to rip apart the camaraderie that we now have with everyone." Napoleon offered her a plate of cookies. Half dozen Russian teacakes were neatly place upon it.
"I think it's akin to peeing on a tree." She bit a lip and took the cookie closest to her. "They want everyone in the Foothills to know that we are the big dog in town." She took a small bite and her eyes widened. She took another. "Did Illya make these?"
"Yup," Napoleon took one himself. "He loves me."
"Which is why I only let you have a few at a time." Illya said as he came through the kitchen door. "What is going on, Napoleon? I was working on Tarte aux poires et à la noisette for dessert tonight."
"Bless you," Napoleon said, smiling as he brushed away the crumbs from his lips. "Illya, this is Gail Dennison." The woman jumped to her feet and offered a hand. "She serves on the Chamber Board of Directors with me." Illya looked her up and down. "She was the opposing vote."
"In that case, I'm pleased to meet you."
"I just wanted to say that I'm sorry this happened. It is a good idea, but it hasn't been thought out correctly."
"You just said a mouthful." Illya glanced over at the tray and then commandeered Napoleon's cup, filling it with more tea.
"You've been in a lot of these." She gestured to the mantle and Illya nodded tightly as he sipped the tea. "What's the first thing we should do?"
"Distance Napoleon from everything to do with the competition."
"I was going to ask him to be on the committee for this."
"Only if you want protests of jury rigging. For it to be perceived as honest, you can't have him involved."
"Not even the wines?" Now Napoleon sounded a bit dismayed.
"And have someone claim that the wine you chose is one used in my recipes?' Illya drained the cup and returned it to the tray. "You can't officially be part of it, except to be in the audience cheering us on."
"Well, that stinks," Napoleon muttered, twisting one corner of his mouth in a disapproving smirk.
"Get used to it." Illya nodded to the woman again. "I need to get back to the kitchen."
"I'll catch you later." Napoleon watched Illya walk quickly from the room.
"He really is angry, isn't he?" Gail set her cup down and brushed imaginary crumbs from her lap.
"Illya?" Napoleon laughed. "That's him practically ebullient. No, that's not angry. That's his 'I have something cooking that's more important than just about everything else' look. You get used to it after a while" Napoleon helped himself to another cookie. "Trust me, you wouldn't want to be around him when he's mad."
"Is that what happened the last time... when you parted company the last time, I mean?"
"So tell me, when does this thing go up?" Napoleon changed subjects smoothly. He wasn't proud of their break up and he certainly wasn't going to discuss it with an acquaintance.
"Yeah, right, so they are talking next month."
"I would make it May. The weather is nicer and you would have more time to sell tickets."
"Makes sense to me. And what about judges? Four or five from around here I think would work."
"Remember what Illya said about favoritism. It's fine for the locals to have their favorites, but if you want someone impartial, I'd go to Sacramento, Stockton or somewhere in that vicinity."
"But surely everyone in those areas knows Illya's reputation."
"Won't do them any good. Illya's not cooking."
Gail's eyes got big. "What? You said... he said... his recipes."
"Yes, but the invitation was to the chef of Taste. There are three chefs. Illya is now in more of an overseer position these days. He rarely cooks any longer, but it's his recipes usually being prepared. "
"Well, I'm sure they meant Illya!" Gail's voice was becoming a bit harsher and Napoleon inwardly patted his suspicions on the head.
"They said Chef and Taste has three." Napoleon poured himself a bit more tea and frowned. It was cold now. "Not their fault for putting up their youngest chef. It will be good experience."
"But Jackson might lose! We were..." Her eyes grew large. Napoleon stood and walked to the closet, taking out her coat and holding out to her.
"Were what, Gail? Expecting Illya to be bullied into doing something he knew he couldn't do with a clear conscience. You don't know my partner very well. I think you probably need to go back to the Chamber and tell them what you've learned. And tell them I won't be coming back. After all the crap I've dealt with in my past, I don't need it in my present."
"I didn't..." Gail started as she took her coat and Napoleon opened the door.
"I'm sure you didn't. Have a nice day and good luck with your fundraiser," he said as she stormed out.
Illya came back out of the kitchen as he was shutting the front door. "I forgot something... where did your friend go?"
"She's no one's friend, Illya. Let's say she was here to ferret out information and she wasn't happy when I told her you would not be playing."
"Then let them pull the invitation. That's their right..." He broke off as Napoleon came forward to hug him and then give him a long lingering kiss. Illya licked his lips as if to further taste Napoleon's. "What was that for?"
"Do I need a reason to kiss you?"
"No, but I thought I'd do it again." A shy smile started to peek out and Napoleon swooped in to kiss it into full bloom. He moved away from Illya's lips to kiss a soft trail to one of Illya's ears.
"So tell me, Chef, how time sensitive is that dessert you are making?" he whispered into the ear, nuzzling the hair surrounding it.
"What dessert?" Illya caught Napoleon's face in his hands and swiveled it back for a passion-filled kiss.
"Mmm, I was hoping you'd say that," Napoleon murmured into Illya's mouth. "Bedroom?"
"What's the winner win?" Napoleon glanced at the stairs.
"Depends on who it is." It wasn't much of a race, more of a grappling match, since neither man could keep his hands off the other.
They made it to the bedroom, clothes strewn along the way.
"I won," Napoleon latched onto the tender skin at the base of Illya's neck.
"Okay." Illya was grasping Napoleon's upper arms. "What did you win?"
"You." Napoleon moved them to the bed and pushed Illya to arm's length. "Bend over."
With a grin, Illya obliged as Napoleon unscrewed the cap off the lubricant. He coated his fingers and started to work, all the while whispering the dirtiest things he could think of into Illya's ear.
When Napoleon couldn't wait a moment more, he pulled his fingers out, slathered his penis up and wiped his hands off on Illya's back.
"Do you mind?" Illya' s protest became a hiss as Napoleon spread Illya's ass cheeks wide and pressed in. The head of his penis slid in and Napoleon sighed.
"Do you know how good you feel?" Napoleon pulled out and pressed in again. Illya's groan was enough. "Change places with me," Napoleon ordered softly. He pulled out and tugged Illya upright. Napoleon sat on the bed and pulled Illya backwards down onto his lap, not stopping until he was fully sheathed in the glorious heat. That alone was nearly enough to make Napoleon climax.
He reached around Illya and with one hand started to stroke Illya's penis with fast, demanding strokes. Napoleon's other hand found and massaged Illya's balls, squeezing and rolling them, as if testing their preparedness.
He used Illya's moans and thrashing as his guide. Then with a half sob, Illya ejaculated and Napoleon leaned forward, latching onto Illya's neck for a fiery kiss as he followed Illya's example. He let his voice catch mid groan and he pulled Illya down hard against him, smearing Illya's semen all over Illya's hips as he held the man in place.
For a long moment, neither of them moved, then Napoleon chuckled.
"What?" Illya tipped his head back to see Napoleon.
"We're not the men we used to be." Napoleon could feel himself growing flaccid and he reached again for Illya's penis. It was in the same condition. "Time was we had no recovery rate between bouts. Now, well, not the case."
"Yes, but we aren't as old as we're going to be." Illya stood a bit stiffly. Napoleon's penis slid out, leaving a momentary silvery lifeline between them. "And once with you is worth a dozen times with someone else."
"One day we will discuss these dozen times with someone else." Napoleon also stood and arched his back. "Now we have work to do."
"Yes, you have a competition to win and I got some fish to fry."
Napoleon sat at a table in Taste. Outside the birds were singing and Spring was bursting at the seams and here he sat. He stared out the window and sighed.
"What's wrong, Cara?" Matt plopped down in the chair beside him. "Smania primaverile?"
It took Napoleon a minute to translate and then he smiled, "Well, it might be Spring fever, my friend, but rather I fear I'm developing a strong dislike of cherries."
"Hey, you knew what you were signing on for," Illya snapped as he carried a plate to the table. "Try that."
"I don't know what you expect... it will be brilliant and taste wonderful, just like the last five dishes." That said, Napoleon picked up his fork and cut into the veal cutlet. Then he paused. "You stuffed it with cherries?"
"Taste it," Illya commanded and Napoleon popped the forkful into his mouth. He chewed, then stopped and chewed some more. He glanced at Illya with a look of amazement and then returned eagerly to the dish. "Winston, you have a winner," Illya shouted, then quietly he sank in the chair beside Napoleon, adding, "Finally."
"Long day, my love?" Napoleon asked as he finished the last bite and Matt whisked the empty plate back to the kitchen.
"Long day, long week, long month." Illya rubbed his fingers over his eyes and then blinked to reseat his contacts. "I've forgotten what it was like to have to cook every night."
"Well, the competition is this weekend, so it will be all over soon. And you have to admit it's been good for business. Folks hear you are in the kitchen and they come in droves."
"It's strange. When we first opened the place, all I worried about was making the mortgage payment and meeting payroll. I used to think if we could just make enough to keep the doors open, the place was a success. We've bought the building seven times over from Benny now and I still keep worrying about failing."
"Welcome to the world of being a business owner. If you didn't care about such things, this place would be a dump." Napoleon looked around at the interior of the restaurant. Its walls were painted a warm rust color and decorated with local art. The tables and chairs were comfortable and in excellent repair. Even the tablecloths were in pristine condition. Taste felt as warm and inviting as its food was delicious and unexcelled. "Taste is you, Illya, and just as you don't settle for second best, neither does it."
Illya rubbed his forehead with the heel of a hand. "That reminds me, we need to replace the candles in the bathrooms with something more spring-like than evergreen." He sighed. "And I need to order ..."
Napoleon reached up and pulled the hand away. "Why don't you go take a catnap and let us worry about stuff for a while?"
"I couldn't sleep."
"Illya you are practically asleep now. Then just lie down for fifteen minutes and relax. You and your staff will be happier for it."
Two hours later, Napoleon left the restaurant and headed for the house. First he paused to be sure Illya wasn't in the garage tinkering with one of his motorcycles, but the building stood empty and stuffy.
Entering the house, he glanced around the living room, then stuck his head into the kitchen and the spare bedroom before quickly, but quietly climbing the stairs.
It looked as if Illya had just dropped in his tracks. Fully clothed, he was stretched out on the bed, dead to the world. It was only the steady rise and fall of his chest that reassured Napoleon that the man was, in fact, deeply asleep. Both cats were sprawled beside him, similarly inclined
Slowly, Napoleon backed out of the room before the cats heard him and woke Illya. He just gotten down the stairs when the front door opened and Matt looked in.
"Did you find him?"
"Excellent. We had a call from the committee, gli sciocchi." Since the Foothills Cook Off committee had discovered there was no way to bully Illya into agreeing to cook, they had been badgering them with obstacles.
"What is it now?"
"They say our charity is not on the approved list."
"The hell it isn't," Napoleon muttered as he walked to the phone and picked up the receiver. "Since when is any charity off limits?"
"They said it isn't one that can benefit everyone."
Napoleon dialed and waited.
"Thank you for calling Dozier Realty. This is Marilyn."
The voice switched from pleasant to annoyed. "I wondered when you'd call. What is it this time, Napoleon?"
"Since when is AIDS research not an approved charity?"
"Check it out for yourself. They have no charter, no license, no charitable standing."
"But if I wanted to donate to heart research?"
"You would do it through the American Heart Association, a recognized charity for that research."
"Then we will designate Equity Cares as our charity."
"What is that, please?"
"It's an organization for the health and benefit of the theatrical community."
"Fine, that is just perfect. Thank you for being reasonable."
Napoleon hung up the phone and saw Matt grinning at him.
"You are not so truthful, I think Cara. She does not know it is a group that secures funding for AIDS research."
"Not yet, but she will eventually. By then it will be too late." Napoleon walked to the couch and sat, then lifted his feet to the coffee table. "This has been a cluster..." He broke off as Illya suddenly appeared and plopped down beside him. "You're awake."
"So rumors have it." Illya yawned and stretched. "More good news from the front?"
"Our charity is now Equity Cares," Matt said, smirking. "Napoleon, he found us another loophole."
"Okay." Illya cracked his neck and looked disinterested. "Is everything ready in the kitchen for tonight?"
"Yes, Chef, but a question—duck or guinea hen?"
"Ah, duck, I think, the Muscovy. There should be enough to offer a Duck ala Orange. For some reason, people like duck in the spring."
"I like duck all year round." Napoleon dropped his feet from the table. "You want something special?"
"Mmm, no, I'll use Grand Marnier or Triple Sec." Illya stood and rolled his shoulders. "Give me half an hour to grab a shower and I will join you," he said to Matt and the redhead nodded before dashing out. Illya chuckled and returned to his spot on the couch. "That tells me that neither product is out of the freezer."
"You are certainly mellow this afternoon." Napoleon brushed Illya's hair off his forehead.
"Still half asleep. Give me fifteen minutes. The panic will have settled in by then"
"You are fully booked tonight. What are you worried about?"
"That I'm fully booked and will have to turn people away. That I might run out of food. That in the middle of a dish I might forget what I'm doing and not be able to finish it."
Napoleon laughed and kissed Illya's forehead." Now I know you are still asleep." Illya settled against him, just content to be near. After a moment, Napoleon murmured, "Illya, what if we lose?"
"You have to weigh the outcome, I suppose. What is more important to the committee? Is it to teach us a lesson about daring to challenge them or that Jackson wins this contest?"
"Those egos run pretty high."
"Whose? The chefs or the committee?"
Illya opened an eye and offered Napoleon a sleepy grin. "Truer words have never been spoken. And I have to go to work."
Napoleon looked down at his plate and made a face of both pleasure and discomfort. The committee had gotten enough of a response to rent the Sacramento auditorium. They had invited various restaurants and businesses to, for a small fee, to set up tables and offer food and/or related items for sale. Then, for one reason or another, one of the committee members had started a silent auction. Napoleon supposed it was a way for other merchants to get some attention. Someone had even offered up a trip for two to Paris, the culinary capital of the world—at least to someone's opinion—as the ultimate door prize.
Napoleon had gone around and sampled way too much food and way too many wines. He felt bloated and he had a headache. The muted roar of the crowd and the stuffiness of the room weren't helping matters.
He searched the crowd and finally spotted Illya, chatting with a small group of people. Napoleon didn't recognize them, but it didn't matter. He headed in that direction.
At his approach, two people stared at him, as if trying to place him. He probably looked ill at ease in the Team Taste tee shirt that the committee insisted he wear. Illya looked around then and smiled.
"I'm going out to get some fresh air."
"Fine. How much time do we have left?"
"About fifteen, by my watch, but I'm not the official timekeeper. Benny is, so it's anyone's guess."
"I'll come and get you if something happens."
Napoleon nodded and walked towards the main entrance. People were still pouring in. The committee had been right that the event would be popular.
Outside the door, cherry vendors had set up, offering a pint of cherries for a couple of bucks. Napoleon knew they would be doing a banner business later. Everyone would go home, heads filled with all the cherry recipes they'd seen this evening.
He found a bench and sat, tilting his head back to look up at the sky. It was seven and the stars were starting to wake up. You couldn't see as many here as in Jackson, but that was okay. Right now, Napoleon just wanted the quiet. He heard someone approach and lifted his head up. Rocky slid down onto the bench beside him.
"You, too?" Napoleon asked softly, as if afraid to make too much noise.
"You know the restaurant can be busy and loud, the kitchen even noisier, but the din in there is unbelievable."
"How's Matt holding up?"
"He's fine, but Winston is just this side of a meltdown. He just has to hold it together for a few more minutes, but I'm not sure it's going to happen. Some people can handle this sort of competition, but I don't think he has the temperament for it."
"All you can do is your best."
"He keeps muttering that Chef would have done this or that. Matt told him that he wasn't Chef and needed to trust his own instincts. I honestly thought Winston was going to take a swing at him. They were plating their last dish when I left. I can honestly say I am hoping I don't see any cherries on Taste's menu for the rest of the season."
"And then some. Let's go back in and get this show on the road. I am ready to blow this place and head back up the hill. It's funny. I used to think New York was the beginning and end of the world. It offered everything and anything you could want and yet..."
"Jackson is home now. You've found your heart there." Rocky finished and glanced over at the door, where Illya stood waving his hand. "I think it's time, Napoleon."
Jacob Meyers approached the podium and held up his arms for silence. Gradually, the room settled into an anticipatory hush.
"I have the winners. In third place, Chef Gilbert Kanes!"
The man walked up to the podium and Jacob thrust a small trophy at him. "Along with this trophy, we present you with a check for $500 for your charity, Keep a Child Alive. Let's give him a hand." Gilbert waved and returned to his team. It was obvious they weren't happy with their placement.
"Next in second place we have Vivian Stoddard! With her trophy, there's a check for $1,000. Vivian!" The woman waved happily to the crowd and collected her prize. "Vivian was playing for AVERT for her charity."
Napoleon watched Winston. The young man looked as if he was ready to collapse from the sheer suspense. It didn't surprise him to see Matt standing very close, just in case.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, it's down to these two contestants. One of them will be the first runner up, and winner of a $2,000 check, while the other will go on to claim the grand prize check for $5,000..." Jacob looked around the room and locked eyes with Illya. He offered the blond a smirk and shouted, "The winner of $5,000 is... Zac Jacques!"
Winston looked as if he'd been sucker punched and he took a step before Matt caught his arm and shook his head. Zac looked pretty stunned himself as one of his assistants gave him a push forward.
"Zac's charity will be presented a check. Who were you playing for, Zac?"
"A new organization called Broadway Cares." Zac was staring at Napoleon, a smile on his lips. "I got the idea when Taste announced its charity as Equity Cares. This way maybe together we can all work for a cure for AIDS."
Jacob seemed to stagger and Napoleon started to laugh. He felt someone touch his elbow and glanced around to see Illya beside him. "What he doesn't know was each and every one of them were playing for an AIDS charity."
"Did you put them up to that?"
"Nope, just told them what we were doing. It seems that they knew Michael and wanted to honor his memory. They are good people, Illya."
"And we are a tight knit community. We take care of our own. Those idiots should know that by now."
"Winston looks disappointed."
"Winston has to learn how to lose graciously."
"No, but I never lost." Illya squeezed Napoleon's arm. "Let go offer out congratulations to everyone."
As they approached, Matt was talking with Zac. "If we had to lose, I'm delighted to have lost to you, Zac. You earned it." He shook Zac's hand with both of his. "Winston?"
"Good job, man," Winston muttered.
Illya left Napoleon's side to murmur something in Winston's ear. The young man turned bright red and he frowned.
"Go on." Illya gave Winton a gentle push forward.
Winston took a deep breath and held out his hand. "I'm sorry. It was a good competition and you kicked my ass."
"Not as much as you think. I saw the score cards, only a few points separated us. You get some more experience under your belt and there will be no stopping you."
"And that would be a gracious winner," Napoleon said to no one in particular.
"May we have your attention, please?" Jacob was behind the microphone again. "We'd like to draw the winner for our grand prize tonight." Gail came to stand behind the wire basket and gave the many tickets inside several vigorous spins. Okay, may we have a volunteer from the panel of judges?"
One of the businessmen got to his feet and approached the duo. "Just reach in there and pull out a lucky winner, Mr. Long."
Napoleon took his jacket from the back of the chair and walked over to where Team Taste was cleaning up their mess.
"Are you ready to go?" he asked Illya.
"Just about. I don't want to leave anything behind."
"And the winner is... I don't believe this. Napoleon Solo! You win a trip for two to Paris."
Napoleon stared at the stage and then shook his head. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted. "Draw again!" He grinned over at his partner and said, "All I want is to go home."