Sparklers Lit

an excerpt

Chapter One

Red, blue and white bunting, fringe garlands, pennant banners, and star garlands draped every inch of the multi-tiered lanai, pool, and fence. A huge American flag hung from the gutter next to the French doors. Loops and drapes of multi-colored streamers covered with swirl decorations ending in stars, patriotic cascades of stars and fireworks bursts, and paper lanterns lit up with flameless candles added to the mixture. Every table had tablecloths, centerpieces, and jarred candles for light and bug controls.

Flags and stars flew everywhere.

"Who farted red, white, and blue? I would have preferred rainbows myself, but damn. Did someone raid the party store?" Cameron Graham said while he pushed open the gate with a flourish. "For all those waiting, the frivolities, cavorting, and partying may commence on this fabulous Fourth of July. I have arrived with the food! Can anyone see me amongst all these stars?" He strolled through to the backyard, pulling a trolley with a stacked pair of large coolers. A bright colorful beach bag bumped against his shoulder and side. For the holiday occasion, he dressed in a blue shirt decorated with bright white stars, red board shorts, and comfortable Birkenstock sandals.

From within the crowd of people, someone hollered, "You're late!"

"I'm never late. I arrive right on time. With the food."

"Still late. Invitation said show up at one. It's after two!"

Someone else added, "You're allowed to be late only if you brought the dogs and burgers! We want food!"

"Dogs? Burgers?" Cameron snorted in disgust. "Puh-lease. Who the hell wants such boring food?"

"It's our patriotic given right to enjoy grilled American goodness and national favorites. They're an important part of every single Fourth of July menu."

Cameron razzed them. "Dogs and burgers! What kind of chef do you think I am?"

"A crazy Scot?" one asked.

"Nah, a gay one," another answered.

"Ha. Ha. Ha," Cameron said in a deadpanned tone. "You're all so damn funny. Since none of you want my delectable entrees, I could turn around and keep all this delightful food to myself. All of you can starve on this holiday. No good eats for any of you."

Multiple folks complained together and the shouts mixed together.

"What?"

"No! No, don't take the food away."

"We're starving!"

Cameron cupped a hand to his ear in a motion of wanting to hear more compliments and not complaints. "Which means?"

"You're a fabulous gay chef who creates masterpieces with his food," one of the crazy group said.

"Ooh, you're getting warmer."

Someone else tried a different approach and said, "You created a different fanfare of delectable goodies for everyone to enjoy together."

"Ah, now you're getting it." Cameron waved a hand in approval. "If any of you wish to enjoy the burnt flesh of those previously mentioned options, you can kiss my tight arse." He smacked one of his finely sculpted butt cheeks as the Scottish brogue came forward. It had been thicker back in his childhood, but with training he managed to keep it to a low burr unless he was pissed or upset.

Laughter and kissy-face smooches answered his demands.

"Once you pay homage to my arse, you can mosey down to the neighborhood gala at the community park and gorge out to your heart's extreme on their pitiful offerings. Nothing at all like my gourmet cuisine."

When there wasn't a rush for the gate or ass-kissing, Cameron paused until the crowd urged him.

"What are you going to feed us?"

"Get on with it!"

"Yeah!"

"Feed me, Seymour, feed me!"

Everyone laughed at the infamous quote from a ravenous alien plant.

"I'll tantalize your tongues with the finest choice ribs marinated for the last two days and thick mahi-mahi steaks. Do I hear my applause?" With the rise of applause and approval, Cam twirled his hand for a bit of flair and pizazz. He gave them a bow and curtsy.

"Where's the food?"

Cam rolled his eyes. "It'll be out after the proper finishing time on the grill and added to the table."

"Come on, Cam, we're starving!"

Cam held out his hand as he ignored all whines and complaints. "Talk to the hand for the chef doesn't comply. I must finish my feast. If you behave, I may share my goodies with you. Until such time, commence with the festivities."

Laughter followed as he entered the home of his best friend since the tender, innocent age of five. Mark Taylor was also his business partner with the Terra Verde Bistro, a restaurant they created in downtown Hamilton River. After pushing dark sunglasses back to secure his bronze hair, Cam smiled as he braced a shoulder against the doorjamb and looked into the vast kitchen filled with soft gray cabinets mixed with dark-stained wooden cabinets and butcher block for contrast to show-off the commercial-grade stainless steel appliances. The recent re-design maximized prep space with the engineered stone countertops and backsplash. The massive central island added extra storage along with a breakfast counter, another sink, and a second cook-top. Cam fell in love the moment he stepped into the renovated space and wanted his own renovated chef-inspired kitchen.

From the opposite side of the island, Mark's wife of ten years, Erin, sauntered saucily toward Mark. She flipped her bouncy blonde ponytail over a shoulder while she flirted in a playful fashion with him. Then she planted a hot kiss on Mark's lips.

Cam placed one hand against his chest and grabbed some napkins. He fanned his face to tease them. "Oh my, be still, my beating jealous heart!" he said in an oh-so-fake Southern belle accent. "What a steamy kiss. Should I come back at a later time?"

Erin pulled back first and discovered him sneaking into their private moment. A smile brightened her face. "Cam! Where have you been?"

"I arrived in my good darn time." Cam tossed aside the napkins.

"Crazy man, you know damn well there isn't a proper party without you." Erin raced around the island to embrace him in a crushing hug. She lifted on her toes to plant a friendly kiss on his cheek. "Seriously. What kept you from us?"

"The typical morning craziness on the catering end, nothing major I couldn't handle. Mrs. Carver didn't want to let me leave without listing all the wonderful assets of her granddaughter. She went on and on about how I must come over, yada, yada, yada, and we would be the perfect couple." Cam rolled his hazel eyes in remembered annoyance at the old lady's insistence on playing matchmaker.

"Sorry we weren't there to run interference for you, buddy," Mark said as he walked over and slapped a hand on Cam's shoulder. The force of it rocked Cam forward on his toes.

"Holy shit, knock the stuffing out of me and crack a rib while you're at it," Cam said with a cough. "Really. Don't mind at all." He coughed again. Then he rolled his shoulder to make sure it worked. He glanced up with a glower, covering the four inch different between him and his six-foot partner.

Mark shook his head at Cam's overreaction. "You need to hit the gym more often."

"Yeah, no, not that type of gay gym-bunny. Thank you. I prefer beating up a new sauce than a treadmill."

"Can't complain if you haven't tried it." Mark leaned his hip against the counter. "Why didn't you tell that old biddy about your preference for the Y chromosome?"

"You know I don't have the heart to break hers, nor would she believe me. If she did, I would hear all about the horrible decision it would be for me not to take her granddaughter. She's a Yiddish grandmother, what do you expect?" Cam slugged Mark's shoulder. "Besides, you know I'm waiting for you to get over this whole marriage thing with Erin and return to me." Tilting his head, he batted his lashes to give Mark a bad puppy-dog-eye look. "You'll realize soon it's where you belong."

"Smart ass," Mark said with another laugh.

"Hands off, buster. He's mine," Erin said and slapped Cam on his arm.

They all gave in to their laughter and playful teasing. While they continue to banter and chuckle, Cam dropped his beach bag on a nearby chair. He rolled the duo coolers closer and unhooked the bands. With Mark's help, they lifted the top one to the floor.

"Damn, I think it gave me a hernia," Mark said with a groan. "What the hell did you pack in there?"

"A little of this. A little of that." Cam unloaded bags of par-cooked racks of marinated baby-back ribs and mahi-mahi steaks. Along with the meat, he added bistro-style side dishes from their restaurant. In the second cooler, he created a multitude of desserts, from peach pies to berry crumbles and decadent brownies.

Mark looked over the bountiful selection of food. "Damn, Cam, when did you put all of this together?"

"I never leave the kitchen. Unlike you, I don't have a sexy classy partner waiting for me." Cam offered Erin a kissy face.

She snorted and kissy face him back.

"I spent the last few days and nights while at the restaurant. Most of the baking I finished when I got home. You two supplied your home and pool, I offered up the menu. That is our usual deal even when it's unspoken. It's what I love so it wasn't a huge deal. You know how much I enjoy feeding people, especially friends."

"Since you did so much pre-work, we'll finish the details. I want you to relax and chill out this holiday," Erin said.

"What? Why can't I manhandle the grill? I was looking forward to fighting the fire." Cam curled his arm and fake-flexed a muscle.

"No one, and I mean no one, touches my brand-new shiny grill but me," Mark said, his words clipped in a no-nonsense tone. "The same rules apply like we were back at the restaurant. I'm the man of fire and meat. You're the creation, detail and finish man."

Cam held up his hands. "Whoa. Okay, big man, I got you."

"He's protective of the stainless steel monstrosity." Erin used a fake whispered tone while she nudged Cam's side with her elbow.

"If I had something I spent almost two grand on, I would be very protective about it. Not that I would be so stupid to spend so much money on one grill I couldn't use in a restaurant."

While he crossed arms over his chest, Mark postured. His pale blue gaze narrowed. "So I shouldn't bring up the recent purchases I co-signed, Cam. And the recent twenty-five thousand plus kitchen renovation, my dear wife."

"That's different. Restaurant is business, not pleasure," Cam said.

Mark shook his head. "A proper grill complete with an outdoor kitchen area is my business." He glanced at his wife, who kept quite under all the masculine posturing. He continued with his fake attempt at attitude, but neither one gave him attention. The side of his mouth lifted in a snarl that sent them into chuckles, then peals of laughter. Mark dropped the pose to turn his attention to the bags of meat. "At least the meat will appreciate the fire."

"We'll let the grill master deal with the meat. I'll finish the rest of the side dishes. Do they need the usual last warm-up or browning?" Erin asked when the laughter subsided.

"Yes, that's it. I marked everything on the sticky notes," Cam said. "The last few touches are in the small marked baggies."

"I can handle it."

"What am I to do?"

"I told you. You're to chill and relax." She pointed to the doors. "Change into your bathing suit."

"I'm already wearing my board shorts. Though I didn't bother with my beloved blue Speedo under them. I probably should have grabbed it. Need to show this off." Cam wiggled his ass toward her.

Chuckling, she smacked one of his round cheeks. "You would wear one of those tiny pieces of fabric."

"You know me. I need to drive all the boys wild and crazy for me, but I didn't want to bother today. I'll woo them with my food instead."

"Get your fine tush outside, choose a swanky drink, and mingle with friends. If you're tired, drop your ass in a lounge chair or the pool. I'm sure you could call out for a cabana boy to slather suntan lotion on you."

"Now you're talking." Cam sighed, wistfully. "One of my favorite daydreams. Ah, you gotta love the hunky cabana boys." Cam rubbed his hands together. "Do you have one handy?"

"Sorry," Erin said, "we couldn't round up one in time for this shindig."

"And here you got my hopes up for a sweet twink to lavish attention upon me." Cam rubbed a fist against his cheek like a crying child. "Boo-hoo. There are no cutie boys for me to love and lavish attention on. Whatever should I do? Is there an option two?"

Erin patted his cheek. "I suggest the same thing as option one without the cabana boys."

"It'll be considerably duller without the cabana boys?"

"Relax, Cam. Enjoy the day," she said.

"It's why we insisted on having the party here and not the restaurant. You would attempt to do everything and never relax," Mark added. "Hell. You did all of the main cooking, though we told you not to."

"Tell me you didn't?"

"Didn't want? I stocked up on burgers and dogs."

"Mark, Mark, Mark, I thought better of you," Cam teased.

Mark winked. "Thought that would get you."

"None of this food prep is truly work for me. This is cooking a great meal for friends." Cam stepped back from Erin's touch and leaned against the nearest counter. He shoved hands into pockets and studied his partners. "Are you two trying to tell me I'm working too hard? Are you going about it in a subtle way or something? Lemme tell you I don't think the subtle part is working."

"Of course we're not telling you to do anything," Erin said.

"We're worried about how you're going non-stop all the time. All work and no play doesn't make Cam a fun guy. You've been a little grumpy lately," Mark added.

Pulling his sunglasses out of his hair to hang them from his shirt, Cam ran a hand through his hair, dismantling the casual waves he worked hard to create with gel. "Why are you guys worrying about me? You mention this stuff at the oddest times, but I'm doing fine. The restaurant is fabulous, the chairs are always full with a line out the door, certain tables are booked for months in advance, and rave reviews in all the top papers from those mystery diners and critics. What brought all this about?"

"You need to relax. Give yourself some down time or you'll crack or burn out."

"There's no need for me to crash, Mark, I'm balanced."

"Balanced? You do nothing but go to the bistro and home. When is the last time you dated someone? When is the last time you went on an actual vacation?"

"There hasn't been time. We've been busy. What would I do on a vacation? I get sick on the cruise ships. I burn into a tasty lobster on a tropical beach minus the melted butter. I can't stand the crowds and noise in a casino. Vacations are wasted on me."

"We wish and hope to give you a chance to take time for yourself and have a little fun."

"I have fun experimenting with creating different recipes."

"You know what we mean. There were plenty of nights Erin and I mentioned we could handle the crowds, yet you stayed."

"It's a good thing too since some of those nights whipped into a frenzy and craziness."

"You don't need to oversee every issue," Mark said. "You're supposed to have two or three nights off a week. You haven't taken even one full night. We know what we're doing when it comes to the bistro. Not everything needs to be made by your hands."

Cam straightened against the counter. "I know the talents and strengths of both of you. It's why I collaborated with you." He rubbed his temples, annoyed with all the personal questions. "What is all this about?"

"When was your last date? A month? A week? A year?"

"Are you asking the last time I banged balls with another fella? Kinda private, don't you think?"

"Not if concerns your well-being, buddy," Mark said.

"Mark, don't go there," Erin said.

Mark glanced at his wife and back at Cam. "Well? When did you last fuck someone?"

Cam covered his face with a hand, massaged the tension around his eyes with his fingers. "It's been a damn while. Mark, what is with all the questions? You know I didn't come here to be interrogated about my private life."

"You've been tense and lonely, pal. I'm concerned."

"Don't be, I'm a big boy. I can handle getting my own dates. I'm not looking for anything long-term. I'm not a one-night bang and leave the guy either. I'm comfortable in my own skin and life. Let it go."

"We're worried about you. We can't let go of the worry when we watch you come and go with dark circles of exhaustion under your eyes."

"Shit, Mark, drop it." Cam smacked his fist on the granite counter. "Let it go. Now. You want me to have fun, fine, I'll do it. Perhaps I'll find someone out there to enjoy tonight with the fireworks. Okay?" He pointed a finger at Mark. "Hell, if I don't meet someone tonight, I'll go to one of the clubs this weekend. I know I can fuck a random guy or maybe two. Will that satisfy you?"

"There could be a little problem with your solution."

"What kind of problem?"

Mark glanced at his wife and then back to Cam. "You might freak out."

"Damn it, Mark, spit it out."

"Derek is here."