Ash and Ember

Ash and Ember - Chapter 22: Examination

Chapter 22: Examination

28 January 2019, Monday 11:53 AM

Rhett and Grant were busy. They were at the tail-end of their Monday morning clinic, and every patient on their schedule showed. Additionally, they squeezed two young men into the schedule between their regular patients. It made for a hectic morning.

But Grant and Rhett were learning what they called "the dance." This is where they anticipated the needs of the other, and they did their part unconsciously in support of their two-man team.

Rhett just left room six, and he smiled at Grant as they met in the hall. "Thanks for cleaning up six. You didn't have to do that."

Grant shrugged. "You were busy. I had a minute. Not a problem." It was something that repeatedly happened over the hours. And it made their work go smoothly, seamlessly, and fast.

At one point Grant noticed Marcy and Dr. Petrucci standing together in the doorway leading to the Front Desk area. And they quietly watched down the hallway where Rhett and Grant had their assigned rooms. Grant decided he would have to ask what that was about later. But at the moment, he was far too busy to think much on it.

The two young professionals walked down the hallway toward their shared office. Their last morning patient was done and on the way to the front desk. So, now they could relax a little.

"Great job, Rhett." Grant truly meant what he said. They entered their office, and Grant took his seat. "Man, I can't believe we saw fourteen this morning."

"Thanks. Same to you." Rhett sat heavily. It was apparent that he was a little tired, but he grinned. Grant knew that he thrived on the constant reprioritization, problem-solving, and the pace of the work that their patient load demanded.

Grant was about to reply when Dr. Petrucci appeared at their doorway. He turned to his boss. "Hi, Dr. Petrucci. What can we do for you?"

The man wore a smile, and he stepped inside. He turned and closed the door to the office. He'd never done that before. Both Grant and Rhett glanced at one another, and they sat up a little straighter in their chairs.

"Hey, guys." The man pulled up a seat, and he settled down. His eyes shifted between them. "Marcy and I were watching you work." His expression shifted to thoughtful. "You do well together. Really well."

Grant smiled. "Thanks, doc. Yeah, I think we're a good team."

Rhett nodded. "We are. Grant's the best provider I've worked for." Rhett said the words, then he instantly went pale. Grant knew he had worked for other providers in the building, including Dr. Russell Petrucci. "Ah, I mean …"

Russell laughed, and he waved a hand. "I'm not offended, Rhett. I know what you mean. You guys fit together better. I don't take that personally."

Rhett relaxed a tiny bit, but Grant could still see the misery on his face at his misstep. Russell continued, "And to prove that I don't take it personally, I am going to give both of you a little bonus. He pulled out a couple of slips of paper. Grant realized they were checks. "You two are our most productive care team. That directly translates to money for the clinic, and care for our patient population." He handed the checks over. "This is to show my appreciation for your work. Grant, you'll still get your productivity pay on top of this as well." Russell looked a little chagrined. "Ah, I'd appreciate if this stays between us, guys. It might stir the jealousy pot a bit if the other care teams knew. But, honestly, they're not doing as much work as you are. Me included."

Grant looked at the check. "Whoa. A thousand bucks, on top of productivity?"

Russell nodded. "Yes. For both of you. You easily earn that much more than the other care teams every week." He smiled. "I won't be able to do this all the time. But, I wanted to do it now, while I can." He turned his eyes to Rhett. "And you, young man. I have a proposition for you."

Rhett was overwhelmed with the money, and now he blinked a little blankly at Dr. Petrucci. "Uh, ah, okay." He seemed to remember himself. "Thank, thank you for the money. I can really use it." He shook his head. "School's not cheap."

"Yeah, actually," Russell smiled. "About that." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and put his chin on his hands. "I know you're going to school for your RN degree and certification. You planning to stick with it?"

"Absolutely." Rhett nodded. "I also want to work here, as a nurse after I'm done." He looked at Grant, a little sadly. "Though, I know RNs don't work directly with providers like a Medical Assistant does. I won't get to work with Grant the same way once I'm done." Grant couldn't help but feel a sense of impending loss at that statement, and he slumped a little.

"Well, maybe, maybe not." Russell's eyes narrowed as he thought. "There are a few models out there that have RNs working directly with a provider instead of a Medical Assistant. There are a few advantages. As an RN, you could do more for Grant. And you could both likely see even more patients a day as a result. It's not all about the numbers. It'd be a real improvement in care delivered too. And I'd like to explore that, see if it could work." Before Grant or Rhett could reply, he continued. "How much more do you have to go, Rhett? Before you're done?"

Rhett was definitely overwhelmed now. The small man rapidly thought. "Ah, I've got another year. It's almost all externship at the hospital at this point. A few more didactic courses, but not much left there." He focused, and he nodded. "Yeah. I'll be ready in a year."

Dr. Petrucci smiled. "Good. That's perfect. It gives Marcy and me time to figure out how we're going to do the billing and such for your guys' visits." He cocked his head at Rhett. "Now, my proposition: Rhett, how would you feel about signing some paperwork, saying you'll commit to working for us for the first five years after getting your RN? If you do, then the clinic will pay for your last year of school."

Rhett's jaw dropped. "Whaa?" He actually wobbled a little in the chair, as if he were going to fall out of it. Grant reached over and steadied him. Rhett blinked, and he shook his head in disbelief. "Are you serious? You'd pay for my school?"

Dr. Petrucci grinned. "Absolutely. We're all about growing our own, Rhett. And you're worth encouraging, and you're worth retaining." He got a little more serious. "Though, I'm also serious about your commitment to the five years."

Rhett rubbed his mouth. Then the blonde man nodded. "Yeah. I'd absolutely be interested, doc. Wow."

That seemed to make their boss very happy. "Okay." Dr. Petrucci stood up. "Guys, sorry to cut into your lunch like this. But it was the only time I could catch you both." He looked them over and seemed very satisfied and happy. "I'm glad you men are here. You're doing good work and a lot of it. Let me know if I can help you get it done."

The man left the room. He also closed the door behind him. He must have known there would be a conversation between Grant and Rhett after he left.

Grant watched Rhett. The thin, skinny man slumped in his chair until he splayed out, like a limp doll in the seat. Rhett's head lay propped against the chair back. He stared at the ceiling, and he breathed through his mouth. Grant eyed him. "You okay?"

Rhett closed his eyes, and he chuckled. "I'm just, uh, I'm processing." He exhaled, an attempt to calm his whirling mind. "It's so hard for me to believe Dr. Petrucci thinks I'm worth that much. That I'm worth him paying off my last year." He shook his head. "I was gonna stay anyway. He knew that. Why do this for me?"

Grant knew this was rooted in Rhett's self-perception, and that it was likely a symptom of his anxiety as well. "Well, you're part of the community, Rhett. And Dr. Petrucci seems very community-driven to me." Grant smiled at him. "Now about his opinion of your worth - it's sort of tough to deny it when he's handing checks to us. And when he's willing to put it in writing, that he'll cover your school expenses."

Rhett opened his eyes, and he again stared at the ceiling. He bit his lip. "Ah, is it crazy that I think he's wrong? That, I don't really deserve it?" He shook his head. "I feel a little like an imposter if that makes sense."

Grant had to shift his mindset. He had to try and imagine a perspective in which Rhett was unvalued, and where Rhett was not as well-regarded as he was. "It, it sort of makes sense from your lens. But it really doesn't from mine, or from anyone else', Rhett." Grant leaned forward, and he put a hand on Rhett's shoulder. "Man, I know it's tough, but you have to accept," Grant grinned, "you have to accept that you're awesome."

Rhett laughed. "That's a tall order." He sighed, and he sat up. "I'm not crazy. I'm going to take the deal." He smiled and nodded at Grant. "Thanks, Grant." He looked a little embarrassed. "Ah, sorry for being so needy and weird."

"Everybody's weird. And you're not needy." Grant stood up. "You wanna go get lunch?" He stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth and waved his check, his brown eyes sparkling. "We can afford it!"

Another laugh from Rhett and the man got to his feet. "Yeah. That sounds great. I need to go the bank too!"

"No doubt." Grant picked up his coat. "Okay. I'm driving. Decide where we're going"

The two men left the clinic, and happily drove out onto main street, on the way to a well-earned lunch.
__________________________________

08 February 2019, Friday 5:40 AM

Troy was having a lovely dream. It was a mishmash of sensation, images, smells, and tastes, all rolled into an erotic sensory experience.

Then he woke up. Troy was on his side, and Grant lay in a sixty-nine position with him. Grant's groin and his erection were in Troy's face, while Grant had the lanky man's cock in his mouth. Grant hadn't learned how to deep throat yet, but he did just fine with his mouth, tongue, and his hands.

Troy grinned. "That's the reason for my dream."

Grant only made an "Mmm hmmm," sound, and he continued to orally pleasure Troy. Grant had a particular way he liked to perform oral sex. He didn't just suck, up and down until Troy got off. What he did was a combination of licking, sucking, rubbing, and stroking that drove Troy crazy. Once Grant got comfortable, he always managed to get Troy off quickly with his ministrations, and Troy could tell that his black-haired lover enjoyed doing it.

Troy took a big breath, took Grant's cock into his mouth, then he gulped until it was entirely down his throat. Grant inhaled as Troy closed on him, and the tall man moved his head back and forth, and repeatedly swallowed, allowing Grant's dick to slide through the muscular ring in his neck.

Grant moaned. Troy knew he loved being deep-throated. And that was plenty of motivation for Troy to want to do it for him.

Troy's hand rubbed Grant's balls, and he applied pressure on his lover's taint and his opening. Grant started to squirm, and the noises from him began to take on a desperate, breathy sound. It never took long, but it didn't need to. Grant pulled his mouth off of Troy's cock. "Ah, god. I'm gonna come, Troy."

Troy hadn't taken a breath, and he was nearly at his limit. But he kept at it. Grant went back to sucking, and Troy edged closer to orgasm himself. He heard Grant inhale, and Troy knew that he was only moments away.

The reward came with a spasm from Grant, and a blast of exhaled air around Troy's penis. Troy felt Grant fire down his throat, and he drew back a bit to breathe and to enjoy the taste of Grant's load. He continued to work on Grant as the man twitched and moaned.

The taste of semen in his mouth, the masculine, musky smell of Grant's groomed pubes against his nose all pushed Troy forward. He grunted, and Grant hungrily sucked and milked Troy's cock with his mouth, tongue, and hand. Grant had stopped coming, so Troy pulled off and breathed heavily. Grant's wet dick pushed against his beard, as the orgasm worked its way through Troy's body in wave after wave of pleasure.

He finished, and Grant gave one more delicious slurp, then he raised his head to look at Troy. The dark-haired man grinned. "Good morning."

Troy laughed. "Good morning, indeed."

Grant turned around, and he climbed over Troy's supine body. He lay on top of Troy, and the men gently kissed one another. Troy could taste himself in Grant's mouth, and he was sure the reverse was true for Grant.

Grant sighed, deeply satisfied, and he lay his head against Troy's neck. Troy's arms circled him, and the men lay there, together.

Troy rubbed Grant's back, and Grant gave him a happy, appreciative sound. Troy continued, and slowly, he felt Grant relax as he lay on top of Troy.

It didn't take long before Grant was asleep. Troy smiled as he breathed in that tell-tale rhythm, peaceful and comfortable.

'Man, what a way to wake up.' Troy grinned, and he closed his eyes. 'And what a way to go to sleep.'

Soon, the lanky man joined Grant in slumber, all while he held the most important person in his life.

__________________________________

11 February 2019, Monday 11:13 AM (Pacific Time)

A few days passed, and before he even knew it, Grant found himself packing, and preparing for the trip to California to see his parents. His mother's birthday was on the 13th, but he and Troy were scheduled to fly out on the Monday before, the 11th. They got up early in the morning, got a ride from Brian to their local airport, and were soon in the air.

As they traveled west, they "gained time," due to the time difference. So, after a six-hour flight which started at eight AM in Vermont, Grant stepped off of the plane at Sonoma County Airport and found it was only just after eleven locally.

He and Troy wheeled their carry-on luggage up the slightly angled concourse corridor, then into the airport proper. Neither of them had checked bags. Grant had the foresight to express-mail a box with his mother's gift and additional clothing to his parent's home. So the men were set in that regard.

Grant led the way. He knew this airport well, and he headed directly for the curbside pick-up area. He had spoken to his mother earlier in the day, and she had said there would be a car for them.

Sure enough, Grant quickly spotted the black Lincoln Town Car. It was an older model, but it was in pristine condition, and his mother's favorite way to travel. He and Troy stepped over, and to Grant's surprise his father, William Sexton, got out of the car.

William grinned at him. "Welcome home, son." He gave Grant a long, firm hug. Then he pushed back and looked at him. "You look great. Vermont must agree with you."

Grant smiled. "Thanks, Dad. It does." He quickly motioned to Troy. "Dad, this is Troy."

Grant could tell his father knew Troy was coming with him, but that he didn't quite understand why. 'Wow, mom really didn't tell him.'

"Hi, Troy." William was very pleasant to Troy, and he shook his hand. "Welcome to California."

"Thank you, sir." Troy shook William's hand, and Grant knew that Troy was nervous. Before they left on the trip, Grant explained that William may not know why Troy was with him. Though the lanky man was a little put off by the circumstances, he was still willing to be a good sport in the situation. "I've been looking forward to it."

William nodded, and he glanced at Grant. Grant knew this was his chance to clear the water. "Let's get loaded up, dad. I want to talk to you about something."

They got their luggage put away, and Grant took the front passenger seat while his father got behind the wheel. That confused Grant a bit. "Dad, how come Gavin didn't drive?"

"Ah, I wanted to meet you here myself, son," William said.

Grant heard 'something' in his father's voice, but he couldn't quite nail down what it might have been. "Well, thanks for picking us up."

"I'm happy to do it, Grant." William smiled as he watched the road.

It was a forty minute car-ride to the vineyard. Grant suddenly found himself sweating. "Ah, so, that thing I wanted to talk about." Grant rubbed his suddenly moist palms on his pants, and William glanced over at him.

"You okay, son?" He looked back to the road and navigated to the freeway.

"Uh. Yeah." Grant turned and looked over his shoulder at Troy. His brown-haired lover only smiled, warm and reassuring. "Yeah." Grant turned back around and looked at William. "So, Troy is my boyfriend."

William blinked. He opened his mouth, closed it. Frowned. Then a look of comprehension settled on his face. "Oh." He seemed to process the idea quickly. "Okay." William looked in the rear-view mirror. "Then it's good to meet you, Troy." It was apparent William still had some work to do, mentally, to really let the information sink in. But Grant found his effort both surprising and encouraging.

"Thank you, sir." Troy leaned forward a bit. "Ah, I just wanted to say that I really appreciate that you didn't pull over and demand I get out."

William looked appalled. "What? Why would I do that?"

Troy shrugged, and he sat back in place against his seat. "I've had a history of some pretty rough reactions from family. That's all. So, thanks."

The car was quiet, and a few miles passed. Grant looked over, and William's brow was slightly furrowed. Grant knew that his dad furiously thought about this new information.

Finally, William took a deep breath. "Okay, so I'm not even going to pretend that I am 100%," he seemed to struggle with his next words, "ah, I don't know. That I'm 100% prepared to really internalize this." He set his jaw. "But," William again glanced at Troy through the rear-view mirror. "I'd never reject my son or someone he likes. Male, female. Whoever." He gripped the steering wheel. "It's not how parenting works. Just because I don't understand something about his life, doesn't mean I reject it."

Grant stared at his father. He knew he had a good dad. He always knew that. But, even he was surprised by the reaction. Grant came to his senses. "Wow, dad, thanks."

William nodded. Then he laughed and shook his head. "Damn your mother. She knew. Didn't she?"

"Ah, yeah." Grant rubbed his head and cringed. "It kinda came out on the phone early one morning."

William laughed, and then he blew out a big breath. "It figures." He smiled, the expression a little more content. "Although, I do have one thing to say to you, Troy."

Troy cleared his throat nervously. "Oh? What's that, sir?"

William looked in the mirror and his eyes locked with Troy's. Grant could almost cut the tension in the car with a knife. Then his father grinned, and his brown eyes glittered with mischief. "Don't call me 'sir.' My name is William."

Troy and Grant both laughed with relief. Troy nodded. "Yes, si … err, William." Troy shrugged. “I'm from the south. Saying 'sir' and 'ma'am' is in my blood."

"Well, Sandra will love that. But not me." William smiled.

Grant looked at William with undisguised appreciation. "Dad, I'm really impressed with you. I'm thankful you're handling this so well."

William pursed his lips, and he nodded. He started to say something, thought again, then tried anew. "Son, I just want to know one thing. It's important to me, and it's the only thing that is."

Grant swallowed, and he sat up straight. "Okay, dad. Sure. Anything."

"Are you happy?" William looked over at Grant as he drove. "After seeing how miserable you were with Rebecca, I started to worry about you, son."

Grant felt his throat tighten up. He cleared it, and he nodded. "Yeah. I am." He looked back at Troy. "I love Troy, Dad." The tall man smiled at Grant, and the dark-haired man returned it. Then Grant refocused on William. "I've never been happier."

William smiled, big and broad. "That's all I wanted to hear." He eyed Troy in the rear view. "It better stay that way." His voice had dropped to a low, threatening growl.

Troy actually looked a little scared, then William laughed.

Grant grinned at Troy, then at his dad. He waited for his father to stop laughing, then he reached over and patted his shoulder. "It's terrific to see you, dad."

William took one hand off the wheel, and he patted Grant's hand. "You too, son."

The three men continued on their way, and before long they pulled into the roundabout in front of the main house on the winery grounds.

William opened his door. "Well, we're here guys." He looked over at Grant, a very intimate understanding in his eyes. "Ready to see your mother?"

"Ah, I guess we'll see." He smiled when he said it.

But as he got out, they both knew that he wasn't really joking.

__________________________________

11 February 2019, Monday 11:52 AM (Pacific Time)

The place reminded Troy of something out of a novel. When they arrived, it was lightly raining, with a gray sky overhead. Pervasive, cool wetness lay over everything. Men and women were busy off in the misty distance of the rolling hills, with various outbuildings sprinkled here and there. And in fields that adjoined the grounds of the house, rows of inert, brown grapevines lay in perfect lines as far as he could see.

They retrieved their carry-on luggage from the trunk. As they passed underneath the covered entryway to the home, Troy looked up at the construction of the place. Timbers arched overhead and created a grand entryway. They walked on a recessed stone surface that would have looked in character for the courtyard of an English castle. It was rustic, though it was also obvious that it was well done with the best materials available.

Troy was an expert when it came to construction. And what they had done here was nothing short of the work of a master craftsman. 'I need to take some pictures of the joinery they used in those timbers,' he thought as they passed through the door and into the building.

There was a wide hallway floored with similar material as the entry outside - the stone and mortar. Though, the stonework inside was smoother and would be gentler on bare feet. A long, brown rug lay in the middle of the hall and ran the distance of the twenty-foot long hallway.

Old pictures in simple frames hung on the wooden walls. They depicted men and women working on animal-powered machines, in fields, and over vats of grapes and wine. Troy assumed they were family and workers who toiled years ago on the vineyard.

William noticed Troy's attention, and he smiled at him. "If you're interested I'll give you a tour later." He followed Troy's gaze to the photos. "There's a lot of history here, and with Sandra's family."

Troy nodded. "Yeah, I'd like that. Thank you, William."

"No problem." He led them down the hall. "Come on guys. Sandra should be in the living room."

They followed him deeper into the house. The hallway ended in a door ahead of them, and one to the right. There was a simple opening to the left, and William turned into that room.

They followed, and now they stood in a large, open space. A gas fireplace was lit against one wall, and that along with high, small, yellow bulbs in wildly different light fixtures gave the room a warm glow. It looked almost as if someone took every light fixture they could find in a thrift store, and hung them in the same place. There were probably a dozen and not one of them matched. But, oddly, it worked. If any two had been the same, it would have looked strange, but as it was, it was obviously intentional and had an artistic flair.

The same wood was present in the room, and the mortared stone flooring as well. And there was very tasteful, understated furniture. All was in earthen tones, and it immediately made Troy think of a beautiful, comfortable, well-lit cavern.

At the end of the couch was a very proper looking woman. She looked to be in her late forties, and as her eyes rested on them, she bore the tiniest of smiles. It was hard for Troy to know if it was a happy expression or not. She wore a comfortable looking, attractive cream-colored blouse and tan slacks. She looked like a woman who knew she could be walking through her fields at a moment's notice. And she dressed accordingly. But, by God, she'd look good doing it.

She rose from her seat. The smile grew a fraction. "Grant." She approached, and Troy watched as Grant stood before her. Sandra stopped, and she gripped Grant's shoulders. Instead of a hug, she held him out at arm's length, and she looked intently at him. "Thank you for coming."

Grant didn't seem surprised by the treatment. He nodded. "Of course, mother."

She spent one more moment gazing into Grant's eyes, then she looked over his shoulder at Troy. "You must be Troy." She stepped around Grant and held out a hand. "Welcome to our home. I'm pleased you could find time to come see us."

Troy took Sandra's hand in his own and was surprised at her grip. 'This lady has seen work in her day.' Troy smiled, and they shook. "I'm impressed with your home. It's great work."

Sandra's eyebrows raised slightly. "Thank you. Grant told me you are a contractor, and that you do pretty well for yourself."

"Yes. It's a living."

"Indeed." She motioned at the furniture in the living room. "Come, let's sit and chat a bit." She glanced at their luggage. "I'll have Gavin take your things to your rooms, Grant."

Grant nodded. "That sounds good, thanks."

They all took seats, and Sandra looked back and forth between Grant and William. "Did you two discuss things?"

William laughed. "Yes. We did. Unless there's some news other than these two young men dating that has yet to be revealed."

Grant chuckled. "No, that's all there is."

"Then yes, we're all on the same page." Willam sat near Grant on the couch, and he patted his son's back.

"Good." Then, to Troy's surprise, Sandra focused on him. "So, if you're dating my son I need to know a few things."

"Mother …" Grant started.

"Grant." She looked pointedly at him. "You are my son. As a result, I have a vested interest in this young man."

Grant looked uncomfortable, but he was also unwilling to leave Troy to his mother's scrutiny. "Mother, there's nothing you can say or do to change anything between Troy and me."

William sat forward. "Son, just relax. Your mother doesn't want to change anything." He looked meaningfully at Sandra. "RIGHT?"

The woman smiled, and it only lifted one side of her lips. In that expression, Troy saw Grant, and it made him start a little. 'Wow. You really are his mom.'

"Of course, William. This isn't about changing your mind, Grant." Her gaze once again found Troy. "It's about putting mine at ease."

Troy took a breath, and he nodded. "What would you like to know?"

Sandra sat back against her end of the couch. A glass of cold orange juice was on the end table, and she picked up the glass. She took a dainty sip, then put it back on the stone coaster. Her eyes never left Troy the whole time.

Troy had never met anyone quite like her. She was intense. Focused. And he could tell there was an analytical mind beneath her exterior. In short, she was a formidable woman.

"I would like to know, what are your long-term plans? My son told me you have your own contracting business. I did some research on your website, and it is plain to me that you don't charge enough. I want to know why. Is it because you don't feel your work has value?"

Troy saw Grant frown and twitch in his spot on the couch. Troy could tell Grant wanted to come to his defense, but that wasn't necessary. Thankfully, Troy had already answered questions similar to this one about his pricing. Though, never one quite as prickly. "I value my work or I wouldn't do it. Quality is important to me."

"I can tell that from the pictures of what you've done for others." Sandra leaned forward, her focus like a laser beam. "Why undercharge?"

"I'm not. Everyone else is overcharging." Troy smiled. "Just because there's an industry standard doesn't mean I've got to be a part of it, particularly when it's wrong."

Sandra blinked, and she made an unconvinced sound. "So, you could be earning more, but you simply choose not to."

"No. Not at all." Troy kept the smile to show he wasn't offended by the questioning, and he continued. "My prices mean I get more business. A LOT more. I work fast, and I know I need to do as much work now as possible. I'm not going to be young forever. And eventually, I won't be able to do the jobs. So my goal is to save as much as possible, now, while I'm earning good, consistent money. Then when my body gives out, and I can't handle the work I'll have a big chunk of money to fall back on.

Sandra seemed to think it over. Then she cocked her head. "So you don't plan to live on my son's income from his work as a Physician Assistant?"

"Mother!" Grant looked appalled.

Troy held up a hand. "Grant, it's fine." He looked Sanda square in her green, critical eyes. "I will tell you now, I have recently had some tough times." Troy nodded toward Grant. "And without your son, I'd likely be dead now." He leaned forward, easily matching Sandra's intensity. "I will never allow myself to become a burden to the man who saved my life, to the man that I love. I just won't."

Sandra studied him. Both Grant and William seemed to hold their breath, and the only sounds were the gentle turning of the ceiling fan, and the gas-fed flames of the fireplace. She finally nodded. "I respect that." Her eyes softened, and she turned her head. "Though, be careful with the vows you take. You never know when life decides you will be a burden on another."

Grant looked at his mother with confusion. It was something obviously out of character for her to say.

William sat forward, and he looked over at Sandra. "A burden to some is a labor of love for others."

Troy saw Sandra close her eyes when William spoke. And for a split second, he thought the iron-tough woman was about to cry. But the moment passed quickly, and her composure hardened again.

William cleared his throat. "Guys, let's not wait on Gavin." He stood. "Let's get you settled in Grant's rooms."

Troy and Grant stood up, and they gathered their things.

Sandra had opened her eyes, and she once again gazed at the fireplace. Grant and Troy moved toward the hall. Troy paused at the doorway, and he turned back to Sandra.

"You know, I'd never do anything to harm Grant. I hope you know that."

Sandra looked at him. At first, she appeared neutral. But slowly she smiled. "I know that you believe that." She eyed him. "You did well." She turned back to the fire. "This time." When she said that, the smile grew. And Troy could tell this woman relished the chance to continue testing him.

He waited a moment to see if anything more was to come from her, but she offered nothing additional. Troy took a breath, and he turned to follow Grant and William down the hall.


Author's Note: Please let me know your thoughts about the chapter at the following email address link.   Wayne Gray

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