Usually the shop was empty at this time of the day. It was too early for wine tasting as many of the tourists were still sleeping off yesterday's viticulture adventures. Likewise, locals were at their jobs or daily lives. Wine would have to wait until closer to dinnertime, perhaps as a reward for making it through the day, to celebrate a milestone or just to surviving life in general. However, today, there were three people staring at the racks of wine for sale.
The voices carried across the wine shop.
"You don't know? That's that beautiful woman of scant virtue I was telling you about."
Napoleon's head came up at that. He'd been restocking the back wall's wine rack and heard the comment. The women speaking were two of the biggest gossips in town, Milly and her best friend, Hanna. He didn't like them for that reason alone.
The woman in question barely looked out of her twenties. Her clothes were clean, but obviously worn past their 'due by' date. She didn't pay them any attention, but her cheeks were stained red.
Illya appeared just then. "Where do you want the Helwig?" He shifted the box in his arms.
"Here." Napoleon pointed to his feet.
Since he was carrying a box of white wine and Napoleon was in the red wines section, it made no sense to Illya. Still, it was Napoleon's shop and he did as he was told. He straightened up and Napoleon grabbed him by the upper arms and kissed him.
Whatever surprise Illya felt was washed away by the gasps of the older women.
"Why, I never!" Milly nearly dropped the bottle of wine she held. Her face grew beet red and her eyes narrowed in disgust. She grabbed Hanna's hand and they stormed out.
"If she had, perhaps she wouldn't be as miserable a person," Napoleon said. He smiled at his partner. "Thank you."
"No, thank you. That was a pleasant surprise."
"I just couldn't resist. Those two really get up my nose. I wish they'd shop someplace else."
"I think they've been banned from everywhere else."
Elaine passed them at that point. "I have a feeling you did that on my behalf, thank you." She turned away, then back. "And for the record, I thought the kiss was lovely. If people kissed and hugged more, there would be less fighting."
"I agree." Napoleon smiled warmly at her. "I'm Napoleon Solo."
"I know. There aren't many people in Amador County who don't know who you two are. I'm Elaine Matson."
"I know you!" Illya said as he shook her hand. "You live in the old Middleton place and make those incredible jams. Jesus brought some in for us to try. Your apple jelly was like biting into a crisp apple!"
"Thank you." She blushed again, but for a different reason. "It means a lot to hear you say that. I just wish…" she trailed off and took a deep breath. "I'm pleased to meet you in person. You can't live in Jackson for long before hearing them sing the praises of Taste." Then she added hastily, "And Vinea."
Napoleon laughed. "Not to worry. I have a thick skin. I love what you have been doing with your place."
"Again, thank you, but it won't be my place for long."
"Thanks to people like those two women, I'm not having any luck with selling my jams and jellies. None of the local stores will carry them and I can't get a business license to sell out of the house."
Napoleon made a face. "I remember trying to get my license for this place. I had to sleep with a guy." At her shocked look. "I meant him. You need to have someone local or established in your corner before anyone will even see you here. Jackson is a lovely town, but not an easy one to assimilate to."
"As I am finding out."
"But why the title, if you don't mind me asking? If you do, just say and I'll never mention it again."
"I had a child out of wedlock."
"That's practically the norm now." Napoleon said, his face sad. "I remember when you wouldn't marry a woman who wasn't a virgin. Of course, guys were expected to have experience. Talk about your double standards."
"Apparently, it's still taboo for some people. I wanted a child, not a husband. You don't know what it's like – the staring, the whispers..."
"Try being gay," Illya countered quietly, then he brightened as he slapped his hands together. "Now, Napoleon, do you really want this box here or someplace else? I have got to get back to the kitchen."
"There's fine. Elaine, why don't you join me for dinner at Taste tonight?"
"I… I couldn't…"
"My treat. I know the chef and I know he'll find room for us," Napoleon said, winking at Illya. "Besides, it might just be the boost your jams and jellies need."
"I'd love it, but I don't have anything to wear.…"
"Why, anything you wear will be perfect. You look lovely in that."
She blushed, again. "Thank you." She giggled. "I keep saying that today. I had no idea what was awaiting me in here. Had I known I would have braved those two sooner."
"They are a special pair. They think by dining at Taste once a week, it puts them above the rest."
"Well, it is a very nice restaurant." Her voice was wistful.
"Yes, but they always order the in-house special and only drink water. It's not because they like the food that much, it's more of a status symbol so that they can pass judgment." Illya's mouth twitched. "No, you have to come and dine with us. I refuse to take no for an answer."
"All right, I will."
"Now!" Napoleon slapped his hands together happily. "What can I do for you?"
"I was just looking for something that was easy to drink and not too expensive."
"Then I have just the thing for you." Napoleon offered his arm and she took it. He nodded to Illya, who merely sighed as Napoleon started to lead her away. "Now, are you looking for something light and fruity or heavier with more nuances?"
"What is this strange magic that draws them to you?" Illya shook his head, grinned, and then ducked out the back, heading towards Taste. He half waved over his shoulder and Napoleon chuckled.
"What did he mean by that?"
"When I was younger, I was a bit of a womanizer. He never lets me forget it."
"You? But I thought… you and he…"
"Yes, well, he is a bit of a one-off, to be honest. Before him and after, he's the one." Napoleon stopped and pulled a bottle from the rack. "Now this is nice if you chill it very cold, perfect for a hot Foothills summer day."
"That sounds nice." Elaine's voice grew dreamlike as she took the bottle, but Napoleon wasn't sure if it was the wine or something else. "You're soulmates."
"I suppose you could say that." Napoleon turned. "If you prefer something a little sweeter, there's always a still wine."
"What?" She seemed startled. "Oh, I'm sorry, I was wool gathering. This would be fine. I don't know much about wine. I'm trying to develop my palate, but I'm not sure where to start."
Napoleon took the bottle from her and patted her hand. "I have just the thing. Follow me."
Whistling, Illya walked into his kitchen and paused. It was so much different from the commercial kitchen just yards away. There, people scurried from one position to another, preparing stocks, vegetables, or proteins for the restaurant. This kitchen was a spot of refuge, quiet, just waiting for him to wake it up. Everything was neat and orderly, placed just so. It had taken Napoleon some time to learn that elsewhere, Illya would share, but this… this was his.
He pushed through the swinging door, intent upon the desk when he stopped and did a double take. The woman he'd met earlier was sound asleep on their couch, an afghan that Napoleon's mother had crocheted over the top of her. Buerre Noir was curled up in the nook behind her knees. She yawned and stretched out a paw to him.
"You'll sleep with anyone, won't you?" Illya asked the brown tabby. She merely rolled over and closed her eyes.
Just for an instance, a flush of jealousy colored his cheeks, but then common sense brushed it away. If Napoleon was going to have a dalliance, he would know better than to do it in their own living room.
At that moment, Napoleon appeared at the top of the stairs and Illya looked up, a question on his face. Napoleon pointed to the kitchen and Illya nodded.
Napoleon quietly came down the stairs and followed his partner. Illya thought he did well waiting as long as he did.
"Napoleon, would you like to tell me why that woman is asleep on our couch?"
"She said she was a light weight when it came to wine. I didn't realize how much of a light weight she really was. I couldn't let her drive off, not in her condition, so I thought it would be better to let her sleep it off. I was just getting ready to take her home. Illya, I was thinking. What can you use to make jelly or jam out of?"
"Just about anything, ask the Japanese."
"What about wine?"
Illya shrugged his shoulders. "I imagine it wouldn't be hard, just substitute it for the fruit. Why do you ask?"
"I'm thinking of starting a sideline."
"Are you now?" Illya's smile was sly. "Should I ask what?"
"Let me think about it a bit more. You'll be one of the first to know, either way." Napoleon gathered Illya into an embrace, nuzzling the crook of Illya's neck. "Mmm, smoked duck on the menu tonight?"
"Guinea hen, but you are close." Illya tilted his head slightly, smiling as Napoleon kissed and then nibbled the soft skin. "Don't start something you can't finish, Solo."
"I wouldn't dream of it. That's just a hint of what's to come after I take our guest home."
"Do me a favor?"
"Get Matt to help with her make-up and maybe grab one of those dresses we gave to the theatre. I want her to be an eyeful when our favorite pair of gossips see you two."
"What do you have in mind?"
"Oh, just a bit of payback…" Illya twisted out of his grasp then and trapped Napoleon's face between his hands. He kissed him, long and deep, until Napoleon was panting for breath. "And something for you to remember me by."
Illya ducked out of the kitchen and headed back to the kitchen. It was going to be a very good night, indeed.
Napoleon stood there for a moment and looked down at his jeans, the outline of his penis straining against the fabric. "And that's enough out of you," he told it harshly and headed for their walk-in freezer. Perhaps that would cool him down.
Heads turned as Napoleon escorted Elaine. She practically glided across the floor. Thanks to a bit of fast work by their resident seamstress, in return for two bottles of her favorite from Napoleon's personal stash, Elaine was a perfectly poised work of art.
Illya watched them enter from the pass through and grinned. Napoleon had gone all out, wearing one of his favorite tuxes. Skills long honed by UNCLE and opportunity served him well and he very nearly danced her to their secluded and curtained-off table. Illya joking referred to it as the Date Table when it was first installed, but it proved to be just that. Now it was often booked full by the weekend. It had only been luck that there was an opening.
Napoleon seated her and then slipped in beside her.
"This is so lovely! I love the colors."
"Make sure you tell Illya that. He doesn't always agree with my suggestions."
Rocky arrived, a tray carefully balance on one hand. "Welcome to Taste. I hope you will find the food and the service to your liking." He winked at Napoleon. "Tonight, our amuse-bouche is an oyster baked in its shell with a dash of vermouth and a drizzle of truffle oil. The stuffing is house-made breadcrumbs, parsley, stone ground mustard and butter. The chef compliments the dish with a glass of Dom Perignon Rose." He set a small translucent porcelain clam shell dish with two oyster halves centered upon it. Between them was a small iridescent pearl. Then tall flutes of champagne were set beside it. "Bon appetit."
For a moment, Elaine just stared at the oyster as if conflicted. Napoleon studied her and then caught his breath. "You aren't allergic to shellfish, are you?"
"No, but I don't want to destroy it. It's too perfect to eat."
"You'd make Illya cry if he heard that. While the food should delight your palate, it should also delight your eyes."
"Also, I'm not sure how to eat it."
"I will demonstrate, but first, a toast to you, my dear. You are so lovely." He lifted his glass to her and then touched it gently to her rim.
"This gown is so lovely, Napoleon, thank you. My life has changed so much since you've come into it." She sipped and giggled. "Oh, this is probably the best thing I've ever had in my mouth." Heads again swiveled.
"Wait until later, my dear." Napoleon picked up his shell and tilted it into his mouth. He chewed for a moment, then swallowed. "Delicious. He never fails."
"How long have you known him?" She followed Napoleon's lead at that point and closed her eyes as she chewed.
"Illya? Practically my whole life. I met him when I was in my early twenties."
"And it was love at first sight?"
"Not exactly. We were partnered by our boss and a friendship grew from that."
"And then it became something more." Neither of them had heard Illya approach.
Elaine squeaked in surprise and Napoleon laughed. "He has that effect on many women."
"And more men," he said, then added, loudly. "You steppin' out on me, Solo?"
"With a beautiful woman, no less. I am captivated by her."
"The tongues will wag." Illya cast a sidelong look at a far corner table. The two women had their heads together. "Well done."
Their plates were quietly whisked away as were their menus. Elaine looked crestfallen and Napoleon patted her hand and said softly, "Wait for it."
"I've arranged everything." Illya reassured her. "Have you said anything to her, yet?"
"All I'm asking is that you think about it and what it could mean to your future." Illya nodded sharply and moved to another table, pausing to chat with the couple there.
"What is he talking about, Napoleon?"
"A winning proposition and a meal that is second to none."
Rocky appeared at that moment. "Chef has selected a special menu tonight. I hope that you will find it both exciting and exquisite." He turned his attention to Napoleon, "Sir, would you like to select a wine for this evening? Our cellars was extensive and award winning." Rocky winked and Elaine covered her mouth with a hand to hide her grin.
"No, I will leave that to you. I know you won't disappoint."
Another waiter appeared and set a small rectangular plate before each of them. He slipped away as Rocky indicated the dish with an open hand. "You have, starting clockwise, Elevages Perigord Farm Foie Gras feuilles with bing cherries and pistachio, sour cherry brioche, a Wild Scottish Langoustine tail, slow cooked with a bacon custard and a crown of sweet corn and La Saveur Potatoes Gnocchi with Hawaiian prawns, calamari, celery and Meyer lemon. I have paired it with a Coudoulet De Beaucastel Côtes Du Rhône Blanc."
Napoleon arched an eyebrow as Rocky poured a small amount into a glass and offered it to Napoleon. He swirled the wine, then closed his eyes and held the glass to his nose. "Interesting. I'm detecting lilacs?"
Rocky merely nodded slightly as waited as Napoleon then sipped and eventually swallowed. "Excellent. This will go quite well with your meal, I suspect."
"Thank you, sir," Rocky said, pouring a measure into Elaine's glass before refilling Napoleon's. "I'm told you are a bit of a newbie with wines," he said in a near whisper. "I will offer you short pours."
"Thank you!" Elaine was relieved. "This dinner looks lovely."
"This is just the appetizer, my sweet," Napoleon said. "We have the whole evening ahead of us." And their curtain was quietly drawn.
"What on earth?"
"We are giving our two gossips something to buzz about. However, I do have a proposition for you."
"Should I be concerned for my virtue?"
Napoleon sighed and sampled one of the gnocchi. "Perhaps a few dozen years ago, but I'm pretty safe these days."
"That's good to know." She raised her glass. "To friendship?"
"I will always drink to friendship." They clinked their glasses quietly and Napoleon continues. "Elaine, have you ever attempted a wine jelly?"
The appetizers were leisurely enjoyed and a Heirloom beet salad with a laudemio olive oil and fleur de sel was next. A strawberry sorbet with champagne meringue and mint followed as an intermezzo and Elaine's eyes kept getting bigger and bigger.
Their entrée was a Muscovy duck for two, glazed with lavender honey and spices and it was accompanied by turned vegetables.
Elaine took a deep breath as the curtains opened, her plate was whisked away and the table was quietly cleared. "I don't think I've ever had a meal like this. . I'm not stuffed and I'm not drunk. Everything was perfect."
"You should try living with him."
"Does he cook like this for you every night?"
"Surprising, no, he doesn't." Napoleon tapped his chest. "I have a bit of a heart issue and he keeps me on the straight and narrow most of the time. Plus, everything goes straight to my waist now."
"You should try being in my pants," Illya said, appearing. He gestured with his head. "Shift it."
Napoleon slid in closer to Elaine and Illya plopped down. "Tough night?"
"Busy one and I'm not complaining. Roxanne said she got an earful about how a lusty old man should leave a young innocent woman alone."
"What?" Elaine was confused. "This morning I was," she paused, then remembered, "A beautiful woman of scant virtue."
"You're a small fish up against Napoleon." Illya helped himself to the rest of Napoleon's wine. "They're willing to overlook your reputation if it means tarnishing the armor of our brave knight."
"Oh, dear, I didn't mean to cause trouble."
"Trust me, you haven't." Illya retrieved the bottle, read the label and poured more wine into Napoleon's glass. "Would you like…?"
"No, thank you. I've had just enough wine to be flying right now. I'm quite content."
"Which is why I thought this would be a good time to talk to you. Did Napoleon ask you about the wine jelly?"
"He did and he even offered a few suggestions. A sweeter wine would probably work best".
"Or a nice old vine zin," Napoleon interrupted and rescued his glass. "Imagine that over a pork tenderloin… or a nice filet."
"Is it wrong for me to be hungry at the thought?" Elaine murmured and Illya chuckled.
"Music to my ears. I have a special wine dinner coming up in a few months and I would love to feature your wine jelly as an intricate part of the menu."
Elaine's mouth dropped open. "You mean…?"
"Yes, pairing your wine jellies, and possibly some of your others with my food. I cook with wine all the time, but this would be a nice challenge for me and I dare say it won't hurt your business."
"I don't know what to say."
"Think about it and let me know as soon as you can." Rocky appeared and smiled.
"Are we ready for dessert?"
"I'm always ready for dessert," Elaine admitted.
"Shall I bring three, Chef?"
"Music to my aching feet. And I think it would pair well with a Sobon zin port."
Rocky bowed and left only to return almost immediately with the port. He placed the three glasses down effortlessly and then nodded. Another waiter surged forward and offered him the tray.
"Tonight Chef has prepared an Araguani Grand Cru Chocolate Symphony with caramel and Maldon sea salt." He served Elaine first, then Napoleon and lastly his employer. Enjoy."
"Oh, it looks so dense, but it's light, like a cloud."
"Try it with the port," Napoleon urged.
Conversation dwindled as they finished off the dessert and Rocky appeared with yet another tray. This one had a sheet of white paper, carefully folded in the center."
"The bill?" Elaine sounds dismayed.
"Something much more valuable," Napoleon said, grinning from ear to ear. "That is for you."
She took it and scanned it quickly, then shocked, stopped. "It's a… a…"
"It's your business license," Napoleon sounded giddy with glee. "When I tried to start a business here, I had a guardian angel help me get mine and now it's time to pay that forward. I only hope you will let me carry some of your product in Vinea when it's convenient."
Elaine threw her arms around Napoleon's neck and hugged him. "Thank you! Both of you! I don't know… How can I…?"
"Never give up being a beautiful woman of scant virtue," Illya said as he finished his last bit of chocolate. "I did okay with that plate. I should put it on the menu."
Elaine was openly confused. "You mean, it isn't normally? But it's so good!"
"No, you two were my test subjects for my fall menu. What did you think of the dishes you had - good, bad, or indifferent?"
Napoleon took a deep breath and locked eyes with his partner. "The duck was good and I liked that you had simple turned vegetables with it. I'd lose the mint with the sorbet, though or the champagne meringue. They were fighting each other."
Illya frowned, but Napoleon could tell Illya secretly agreed with him. "And the langoustine?"
"I liked the gnocchi better."
"Heathen. What about you, Elaine?"
"Oh, don't ask me. I think it was all lovely. I'd never had most of what I ate before."
"We will have to see what we can do about expanding your palate, then." Illya slowly stood. "I need to get back to the kitchen. Think about my offer, Elaine. I'm sure Napoleon could help guide you along the way. He's not been in business so long that he's forgotten what it was like to start one." Limping slightly, Illya headed towards the back, pausing at this table or that as he did.
"Napoleon, is he okay? Did he injure himself?"
"He's had a colorful past and the day's toil starts to get to him about now. A hot bath and a good night's sleep and he'll be fine." Napoleon winked. "Now about that jelly…"
Illya panted and reached out a hand to support himself. Sweat trickled down the side of his face and his back, but there was the smile of completion on his lips. "Done… we are… done."
Matt collapsed in a chair with a groan and flexed his ankles. "In more ways than one, I fear. Che folla!"
"But a happy crowd." Rocky set his tray down and stretched his arms over his head. "My back is nearly finished. If we do this again, I think we will need more servers."
"If we do this again, we are going to need a new chef." Illya leaned forward and rested on a metal table, its surface cool against his over-heated skin. "All of the desserts have been plated and presented?"
"Yes," Rocky bent over and touched his toes.
"Careful, Cara. You give me ideas. Evil ideas that I have no energy for…" Matt warned with an impish smile.
"Oh, to be young enough for ideas," Illya muttered. He straightened with a wince and started to unbutton his soiled chef's jacket.
"Must we?" Matt didn't move.
"We must, although it's not my idea of a good time." He took off his jacket and for a moment stood there, eyes closed as the fan hit his sweat-drenched tee shirt. He peeled that off and reached for a black chef's jacket. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Matt slowly doing the same.
"All right, everyone, listen up!" Immediately, the hum of the kitchen paused as all eyes went to Illya. "I just want you all to know that you went above and beyond this evening. We raised a lot of money and made several people very happy. I couldn't be happier with our staff or service today. You did the restaurant proud. You did me proud and I appreciate that. However, now there's just one more duty we have to perform before we clean up and head home. Get ready for the parade, everyone."
Aprons were reversed, soiled jackets replaced and tired expressions exchanged for smiles as they waited.
Suddenly Napoleon's voice came through loud and clear. "Now I ask you to charge your glasses and be upstanding in thanks to all the folks who made the wonderful dinner – your servers and kitchen staff."
Rocky gestured and the people followed him out amid thunderous applause.
"I'm guessing that means we did okay, amico mio."
"Si, Cara, they are happy."
"And now a special round of applause for your chefs de cuisine."
"After you, Mattie." Illya gestured to the door and with a grin that belied his exhaustion, Matthew shook out his red afro and led the way.
The stairs were almost more than Illya wanted to bear, but somehow he found a last burst of energy and got up them. Walking out onto the makeshift platform, Illya waved to the crowd. He couldn't see them, thanks to the lights in his eyes, but he could hear them. He didn't live for moments like this, but they were a nice benefit when they happened.
Napoleon walked to his side and held Illya's hand up in the air. Again there was thunderous applause and Illya grinned, waiting for it to die down.
"I want to thank each and every one of you for attending tonight. Because of your generosity, we have raised over $50,000 for our various non-profits in Amador County. You will enable the fine arts to flourish, the library to remain open and our homeless shelter to continue to provide for our less fortunate members."
He stopped for the applause, then resumed. "There is one other person who needs to be up here with us. It is because of her that we were able to present you with an exciting and taste-tempting evening. I am speaking of the owner and proprietor of "In a Jam" – Elaine Matson!" He held out a hand to a table close to the stage. "Elaine, won't you join me?"
Blushing, Elaine excused herself from the other members of her table and climbed up onto the stage. Illya led the applause for her and the kitchen and wait staff joined it. Napoleon egged the crowd on and they responded enthusiastically.
"A few months ago, Elaine came to Jackson and saw the worst side of our town. She was met with gossip, rumors, and mistrust. I think we all know what I'm talking about. Jackson is a warm and wonderful place, but we are slow to reveal that side to newcomers. My challenge to you is this. Tomorrow, when you are out and about, smile at a stranger. Thank them for visiting us, invite someone new to share a cup of coffee or one of Jesus's incredible pastries. And I want you to remember that most of us were newcomers here at one point or another, some of us by chance, others by design, but we have all stayed because we love this little town of ours. We'll never be the biggest or the most advanced, but we can be the friendliest. Let's prove it."
There was more applause and Napoleon hugged Elaine, then she turned and hugged Illya.
"Thank you, Napoleon, and, of course, you, Chef. They took me under their wing and helped me fly. I only hope more people will see past the gossip and give me a chance to prove no matter the setting, there's a jam or jelly for it. Thank you."
Illya watched Elaine with a sense of fatherly pride.
"And there's another one destined to fly the nest," Napoleon murmured, his breath tickling Illya's ear.
"I couldn't' be happier. Well, I could be, but this is neither the time nor the place for that discussion."
"It's okay. I know where you live." Napoleon gave him a rough hug and Illya smiled.
"Indeed you do, my love."
And then the night and the crowd were upon them.