Ash and Ember

Ash and Ember - Chapter 23: Birthday

Chapter 23: Birthday

11 February 2019, Monday 12:11 PM (Pacific Time)

"Damn it, I'm sorry, Troy." Grant grimaced just after the door shut behind his father. William had shown them to Grant's rooms, and he left the two men to themselves. Grant shook his head. "I should have told her it was a condition of our coming here - no inquisitions."

Troy smiled, and he shrugged. "Honestly, this is relatively minor torture." He sighed. "Really, man, you're pretty lucky." He looked directly into Grant's eyes. "I know you have issues with your mom, and she has issues with control. But at least she's not judging us for being gay. She just wants to know that I'm not going to take advantage of you."

Grant couldn't help but frown at Troy. "You think that I'm overblowing how manipulative and controlling she is?"

Troy shook his head. "No." He put his hands on Grant's shoulders, and he smiled at his lover. "But, I am saying, there are worse things from a family."

Grant remembered Troy's story about his family, and then about John's too. Troy's outright rejected him, and John's ignored Troy's relationship with John. That was true all except for John's sister, Beth. Grant sighed. "Okay. Yeah, I guess you're right." He looked chagrined. "I guess my family problems aren't really all that impressive."

Troy smiled, and he pulled Grant close. "It's not a bad parent contest, you know. I'm not trying to belittle your issues with your mom." He squeezed Grant. "I do think the way you feel is justified." Troy looked fondly at Grant, and he gave him such a loving grin. "All I'm saying is if it were a contest, I'd win."

Grant laughed in Troy's arms. He eyed Troy with a smirk. "Fine." Grant hugged Troy to his chest, his head against Troy's neck. "I don't want you to let my mother scare you off. That's all."

Troy held him. "That's not a possibility. You've got nothing to worry about, Grant. I promise you that."

Grant smiled, and closed his eyes. The two men stood there, wrapped in one another's arms.

11 February 2019, Monday 3:21 PM (Pacific Time)

William did indeed offer to show Troy the house and the grounds of the winery. The two walked around the spacious and rugged home, and then they donned ponchos and went outside. William explained the use of all of the outbuildings. And as he spoke, Troy saw his eyes light up with interest and passion. It was evident that William enjoyed his work. In addition to the field trip, William had something he wanted to check out near the edge of the grounds.

As they passed the edge of one of the fields close to the house, William made a frustrated sound. Then Troy followed him as William detoured off of the path to a black water line that lay along a very straight row of espalier grape vines. "I knew it. I knew it wasn't working." William squatted next to the line. Numerous drip irrigation nozzles extended out of the line, and William cleared the nozzles of the wet, sticky, clay-rich soil. William's hands soon went from perfectly clean to looking as if he played patty-cake with a mud pie. "It's not really a problem right now, but it will be when it heats up again."

Troy carefully stepped behind him and looked down at what he was doing. He pursed his lips. "Can I ask why you have a drip system here? Looks like a mister would work better."

"Eh, we lose too much water to the high temps during the summer. And the water drops on the leaves act like tiny magnifying glasses. In the strong sun we get, it can damage the leaves. It's just better to have the water applied directly on the ground at the roots." William made a face. "But yeah, the clay content in the mud makes these drip systems hell to keep cleared."

Troy had forgotten that it got hot in this part of California. He considered the problem. "Well, how about a sub-surface irrigation system then? They're made for contact with dirt and soil. They won't clog up like the drips can."

William stood up, and he looked at Troy. He made a thoughtful noise. "I don't think we ever really looked at sub-irrigation systems." He cocked his head. "What would the cost be? I'm talking install, materials, and maintenance."

Troy could sense a kindred mind in William, and he began to understand his place in the operation of the vineyard. William was the man who made it all work. He focused on the details, and he made the overarching vision of his wife happen. William was her most valuable and cherished asset. He was a big part of why the vineyard succeeded against the dire predictions from Sandra's father that it would fail.

"Honestly, I don't know. I'd have to check. But I can if you're interested."

William looked back at the lines. "I'll estimate the time my crew and I spend clearing the lines. If you can get me a cost estimate, and one for labor and ongoing costs, then that'd be a good starting point."

Troy nodded, eager to be helpful. "I can do that. Not a problem. I've installed a couple of these, but it has been a few years. So I'd need to see what's available now."

William eyed him. Troy noticed that he had brown eyes, same as Grant. He seemed to think something over. "Do you think you'd want to stick around, even after the party, see to the work yourself? At least get us started, so my crew knows what to do?" William smiled. "You'd be paid well. Probably more than you'd normally charge. Sandra would insist."

Troy was surprised, and he was sure it showed on his face. "Ah, I thought Sandra maybe didn't have a very high opinion of me. She'd really be okay with my working for you guys?"

William smiled. "Troy, I know she comes across as harsh. But, honestly, you impressed her. She'd never say so, but I could tell." His smile grew. "Besides, she has finally learned to let me do my work. So if I decided to hire you for the job, then she'd trust me to get the right man for the work." He shook his head with a laugh. "But it took years for her to get there." William grinned. "And maybe a threat that I'd quit the winery if she didn't leave me to it."

Troy laughed. "Wow." He blew out a breath. "Yeah, she seems like a tough customer, that's for sure." Troy looked over the field before them, and he thought about timelines. "Okay, so if you're really serious, I'd need to figure out an estimate before we do anything else. And I need to check my website. If I have a lot of jobs scheduled for when I return, then I will have to pass on the job here."

William nodded. "Do what you need to do. If you can't do the work, I won't be put out or offended. But I'd pay you for a consult - just to ensure we know ballpark prices to expect from our local contractors and vendors."

"If I'm not getting my hands dirty then I don't expect to be paid." Troy couldn't quite wrap his mind around getting paid for 'nothing.'

William smiled. "Again, Sandra will insist." He held out a muddy, grimy hand. As it hung in the air between them, a dollop of clay-rich soil plunked down to land on the ground. "And you'll definitely get your hands dirty."

Troy looked down at the proffered hand, and he laughed with a shake of his head. "Okay then." Troy reached and clasped it. The mud and clay squished between their palms as the men shook. Both grinned at one another.

William chuckled as they released hands, and Troy slung mud onto the ground. "Yep, pretty sure I'm gonna like working with you, Troy."

The lanky man nodded at William, and still wore his grin. "Same here."

William had a satisfied expression, and he repositioned the poncho he wore a little to better protect his face from the misty rain that still fell. "Okay, come on. Let's get moving. Now that we might be working a job together, there are a few more things I want you to see."

Troy smiled, and he followed Grant's father over the fence and into the field that adjoined the house grounds.

11 February 2019, Monday 5:39 PM (Pacific Time)

Grant heard the front door open, and shortly after, his dad and Troy's voices. Both men talked, and they sounded excited. They had been gone for a couple of hours, and Grant was just about to go hunting for them. He got up from the couch where he had sat with his laptop to do a little web surfing and to catch up on the news.

The pair of men entered the living room. Both were spattered with mud, mainly on their legs, but there were spots here and there all over - even on Troy's face. They were in socks, and Grant imagined their footgear was completely covered in mud.

"Well, there you are." Grant smiled at Troy and his father. "Good tour?" He smirked and eyed their muddy clothes. "It looks a little more interactive than I thought it'd be."

Troy grinned. "Yeah! It was great." He stepped over next to Grant. "Your dad and I checked out the fields, and I'm sure I can help them put in a better irrigation system. One that won't clog up."

Grant frowned at him. "What?" He shook his head, confused. "You'll have time to do that in less than a week?"

"Oh, no." Troy glanced at William. "We've talked, and I'm going to stick around after the party for a full week. Maybe up to ten days." He turned back to Grant. "I only had a couple of jobs scheduled on my website. I've already rescheduled them." He blew out a breath. "It's going to be a lot of work. Even with William's crew working with me, it'll be a lot."

Grant blinked in surprise. "Ah. Okay."

William smiled at Grant. "Is it alright for us to steal Troy for a bit?" William's gaze slid over to Troy. "Though we need to negotiate over his rates. They're unacceptably low." Troy rolled his eyes at the remark, and both of them grinned.

"Well, sure." Grant got over the initial surprise. And he noticed the easy, relaxed manner Troy and his father already had with one another. 'Weird!' Grant found the way they clicked interesting and encouraging. "Uh, so you're really gonna stay? Another week?"

Troy moved his jaw as he thought. "Yeah. I think we can do it in a week. Like I said, it might take up to ten days. But I think we can do it. So long as the weather doesn't turn really crazy."

Grant looked at them both, and he finally shook his head with a laugh.

William frowned. "What?"

"Ah. It's just in my wildest dreams, I didn't imagine that Troy would be staying alone here to work for you."

William smiled. "Well, we need the work done, and he is willing to do it." He put a companionable hand on Troy's shoulder. "Besides, it'll give me a chance to get to know the man a bit."

Troy nodded. "Yep. He can tell me all of the embarrassing stories about you as a kid."

Grant laughed. "Great!"

The guys were very hungry. The way meals worked traditionally for the family was a little strange. Their staff prepared food throughout the day, and there was always something ready for them. It was due to the varied schedules, and the busy lives of both Sandra and William. It was rare for them to sit down to a real meal, all together.

William went to find Sandra while Grant led Troy into the kitchen. Sure enough, a Dutch oven of beef stew bubbled away on low heat on the stove top. The two men served themselves a bowl each, then they cut a couple of thick slices of homemade sourdough bread.

They sat at the empty table in the large dining room that adjoined the kitchen. Troy sat right beside Grant and as they ate the lanky man leaned into him, shoulder to shoulder. Grant knew that it was unconscious. And he smiled as their bodies touched in that comfortable, reassuring closeness.

Grant was happy. At that moment, he was happy in a simple, pure and sublime way. His skin tingled with the release of oxytocin - the feel-good drug the body secreted when safe, secure, and loved.

Grant finished his last bite, wiped his mouth, and he leaned his head over on Troy's shoulder. Troy put his arm around Grant, and the tall man smelled his hair. Grant closed his eyes, and he smiled.

After a relaxing, quiet moment, Grant heard a noise, and he looked up. His mother stood in the doorway of the kitchen. Her stance was a little odd - she leaned against the door frame, but Grant barely noticed. He almost felt as if he had been caught at something, and he sat up in his chair.

Sandra's expression was neutral, and only the barest of smiles flickered on her lips. It was gone in a flash, and her flat affect was back. "Don't bother yourself on my account, Grant. You looked comfortable." She stepped into the kitchen, her gait careful, and she put a hand on the far end of the table as soon as she could.

"Okay." Grant watched as she moved around the table. One hand almost always was in light contact with the surface, then she moved to the counter, and did the same thing - one hand lightly touching the countertop constantly. Grant frowned. "Mother, are you alright?"

Sandra sighed. "I'm quite fine, thank you." She didn't elaborate, and by her tone, Grant knew that she wouldn't. "I'm just here for a bit of stew. Then your father and I have some business to discuss out on the patio." There was a lovely covered outdoor space attached to the back of the house. They tended to use the area at all times of the year, and Grant loved the view of the fields the spot enjoyed.

Sandra got a bowl, and she looked over her shoulder at Troy. "When you're finished with your meal, I'd like you to join us. If you're to be our contractor for the new irrigation system install, then I want to talk about costs, timelines and such."

Troy nodded. "Of course." Then he stifled a yawn. "Ah, sorry. The time difference is a little weird."

"I expect that you'll adapt soon." She filled her bowl. "We also expect to see you outside."

She swept from the room without another word. Grant closed his eyes, and he tried hard to control his blood pressure. Troy noticed, and he rubbed Grant's back. "It's okay. It's fine."

"It's not fine. She's just gotta be in control. All the damn time."

"Grant, they're going to be paying me. She's my customer. All right? Don't mess this up for me. It's a well-paying job, and I can handle her."

Grant looked askance at Troy. "What? I'd never mess it up for you."

"Well, you COULD." Troy smiled at him. The expression was loving, but serious too. "There's so much history, and angst here for you. You automatically want to 'rescue' me from her." Troy smirked. "But, really, I can handle it."

Grant looked into Troy's green, hazel-flecked eyes. Troy was so calm, confident, and sure. Grant found himself relaxing slightly as he held Troy's gaze. After a moment, Grant laughed, and he shook his head. "All right. I'll leave it alone. I won't call her out on her bullshit."

Troy grinned. "Thank you." He leaned over, and he lay a very gentle kiss on Grant's lips. Then he pulled back and smiled. "Okay, I'd better get out there."

Grant nodded, and they both stood up. "I'll take the bowls. I'm not sure where Gavin and the rest of the crew is. I've not even seen anybody else in the house. That's weird."

"I saw a pale, skinny white guy around earlier. He was fetching something for your mom. But she didn't introduce me, and he didn't stick around."

Grant frowned. "Yeah, that's him. And that's weird. He's a sociable guy. Looks like he would have said something."

Troy shrugged. "He seemed busy." He took a step toward the back of the house. "Okay, I'm gonna get out there." Troy smiled at Grant. "Go to bed. I can tell you're tired. I'll crawl in with you in a bit, hopefully."

Grant smiled. "Okay." Troy kissed him once more, then he strode away.

Grant watched him go. 'Mother, you'd better be decent to my boyfriend.' Just the thought of Sandra grilling Troy pissed off Grant. But Troy was right - he was tired.

Grant washed the bowls, and then he retreated to his rooms. And there, he stripped and got into bed. Soon, Grant was asleep.

11 February 2019, Monday 6:38 PM (Pacific Time)

Troy opened the french doors, and he walked onto the spacious patio. There were clear, thick plastic sheets that snapped into place along the edge. They were up now to trap heat from the two tall, gas fired heaters that stood on either side of the table. They currently gave off a pleasant warmth. The lighting was muted, but enough to see by. Again, Troy noticed the floor. This time it was a porous sort of cement. He frowned as he looked down at his feet.

"Soil cement. We made pavers of it. Cheap, and it got the job done." William said from the table. He and his wife sat at opposite ends. It wasn't a long piece of furniture, but it still seemed strange to Troy.

"Ah, I've heard of it." Troy looked back at the stuff underfoot. "Never worked with it before." He glanced back at the pair, and he quickly made a decision.

Troy walked over, and he took the chair directly next to Sandra. He sat, and he lifted his chin to look her straight in the eye. "If you're ready, let's get to it."

Sandra had a great poker face. But, slowly, her eyes crinkled and her mouth slid into that sideways smirk - the same one she had in common with Grant. She gave a measured nod. "Sounds good."

William rose to his feet, and he came down to their end of the table. He took the seat across from Troy. And for a split second, Troy caught the satisfied smile and the look of approval from him.

'So, everything is a test with her.' Troy reaffirmed in his head as Sandra got the papers with all of the estimates together for the work he had to perform. 'I've got your number, lady.'

And for the next two hours, the trio went over the costs, expectations, and if they all jived with his skillset. All the while, Troy forced himself to focus, even through his fatigue.

As they were wrapping up and Sandra seemed satisfied, Troy stood and stretched. He sighed, and he gave a sleepy smile at William and Sandra. "I'd like to thank you for the opportunity for the work. I appreciate the trust you have in me."

"You're welcome." Sandra put her paperwork back into a careful pile, and she paperclipped it together. Then she looked up at him from her seat. "If you can really do it for your quote, then you'll save us quite a bit of money." She drummed her fingers on the table-top. "If you get it done for the quote, or below, you'll earn yourself a significant bonus." She held up a finger. "IF, William is satisfied with the job."

Troy nodded. "That's fair." He was satisfied with how things went. Sandra was a woman who knew what she wanted. And Troy had a certain amount of respect for that. He stifled another yawn. "Ugh. Okay, I've got to turn in." He gave one last smile. "Goodnight. See you both tomorrow."

"Goodnight, Troy." William grinned at him. Troy could tell William was pleased with how their meeting went.

Troy left the patio, and he made his way through the house. He quietly entered Grant's wing of the home. Grant's collection of rooms was almost an apartment in and of itself. The only thing missing really was a kitchen. Troy stepped into the bedroom, and he tiredly stripped.

Grant was on his side, and Troy slipped under the sheet and the single blanket - it was warm in the home, and no more than that was needed. The lanky man scooted up against Grant, and his lover came semi-awake as he did.

"Hey," Grant said sleepily. He wriggled happily as their naked bodies pressed together. "I love you." Grant's sweet murmur came from his lips, and then the man was once again asleep.

Troy chuckled at Grant. He leaned forward and lay a gentle kiss on the nape of Grant's neck.

"I love you, Grant."

And with that, he tumbled headlong into a deep, restful sleep.

13 February 2019, Wednesday 1:54 PM (Pacific Time)

With the birthday celebration on his mind, William was a busy guy. It was Sandra's last year in her forties, and he wanted it to be a great time - one she would look back on with fondness.

Sandra had given strict orders to Gavin to make himself scarce in the house as much as possible while Grant and Troy visited. He and William were the only ones in the whole winery to know of Sandra's diagnosis, and the slow progression of her symptoms. And so she did all in her power to avoid Gavin mixing much with the guys.

The problem was Gavin was terrible at keeping secrets. They all knew it. Unfortunately, he had been the one to see Sandra fall in a field. And when she couldn't get back to her feet, after he helped her to the house, she was forced to tell him what was wrong. Otherwise, the worried man would convince himself Sandra had some other malady - probably something worse than Multiple Sclerosis.

Still, there were worse qualities in an employee. Instead of bemoaning a person's limitations both William and Sandra were united in working around them. Thus, the reason for Gavin's off-site assignments this whole week.

But, William needed his help to pull off the party. Even if it was just their tiny group, there were still things their very competent driver and butler handled that were beyond what William could reasonably do by himself.

Sandra was particular. She didn't want any other people in the room once the party began. So, no live music. No caterers. William knew part of it was because of her need to control something. And then, part of it was because she still stung from falling in front of her entire family over the holiday.

'It's her party. She'll get what she wants.' William thought as he helped Gavin finish the last touches on her cake.  The lunch was already prepared and was kept warm in four different chafing dishes.  But the cake was what really worried William.   Gavin was, luckily, a capable man when it came to many things in the kitchen and around the house. He was in his mid-forties, built a lot like Troy - lanky, though not quite as tall, and his black hair was beginning to gray on the sides. He was also startlingly pale. The sun hardly ever touched his skin, and when he went outside, he always wore a hat and sleeves. He was an odd man, but he had found his place at the winery and had done so for the last twenty years.

Gavin carried the cake into the dining room. As William worriedly watched, the man carefully placed the cake onto the very center of the table. They had already decorated the space for the party, and there were festive gold and green bows, ribbons, and streamers all over the area. Gavin straightened, cocked his head at the cake, then he moved it slightly. He nodded and seemed satisfied. Gavin turned to William. "Do you need anything else, sir?"

William looked over the space, and he slowly nodded. "I think we're okay, Gavin." William smiled at him. "Okay, you'd better go before the boys come."

Gavin couldn't keep the disappointment off of his face. "Yes, yes sir." He turned to go.

William knew Gavin missed Grant. The man was almost like an uncle to Grant. He was always around, and many times Gavin was the only company Grant had when he was growing up on the winery.

William sighed. "Wait."

The pale man turned, and there was a hopeful glint in Gavin's green eyes. William rubbed his face. "God, she's going to kill me."

At this point, Gavin grinned. "I'll not say anything about her condition, sir. I promise." He looked almost like a little boy about to open a present on Christmas. "It'd be so good to see him again. That's all I want. Just for a minute." Gavin took a breath and tried to gather himself. But William knew that he missed Grant terribly.

William eyed Gavin. "Okay. Just for a minute or two. And you can meet Troy, Grant's boyfriend too."

Gavin's jaw dropped. "What?" A stunned look of realization hit him. "Oh! That explains so much!" He smiled. "All those problems with that beautiful fiance of his."

Before William could answer, Grant and Troy walked in. Grant carried a rectangular, wrapped box. And his face lit up when he saw Gavin. "Gavin!" He grinned, and he handed the box to Troy. Then he quickly crossed the room. The two men hugged, both with smiles.

"Hello, Grant." Gavin had a goofy, and happy expression on his face. "It's so good to see you."

"Wow, same to you." Grant's eyes roamed over Gavin. "You look good! They're still keeping you busy, huh? I've not seen you at all, and we've been here for two days!" Troy approached, and he stood behind Grant as he spoke.

Gavin's eyes flicked to William, and he laughed somewhat nervously. "Ah, yeah. Really busy." He licked his lips, and he nodded at Troy. "Uh, you going to introduce me to your friend?"

Grant made a noise of irritation at himself. "Ah, damn it. Yes." He put a hand on Troy's back, and he pushed him forward. Troy shifted the box to one arm, and he extended a hand toward Gavin. "This is my boyfriend, Troy. Troy, this is Gavin. He's our long-term employee, and he's a close friend."

William carefully observed everything. He was terrified that Gavin would give something away. But seeing his reunion with Grant made the risk worthwhile.

"Boyfriend!" Gavin grinned. His voice was too excited, and it was obvious he already knew. Grant laughed, and he glanced at William with a happy smirk. William simply rolled his eyes. "It's great to meet you, Troy. I hope you guys have enjoyed your time here so far."

"I have. Thanks, Gavin. Nice to meet you too." The men shook hands.

Then it happened. William saw Sandra enter through the doorway from the kitchen. Her look could have killed, but she was silent when she saw Gavin. The man followed William's gaze.

"Eeep!" It was a tiny, unconscious sound, and if William hadn't been so nervous, he would have laughed at Gavin's response. "I've got to go!" He smiled, all of his teeth on display at Grant as he hurried out of the room. "Great to see you again! Good to meet you, Troy!"

Grant looked bemused as Gavin retreated. "Uh, sometimes I really have no idea what is going on with him."

William breathed an internal sigh of relief. The secret was still safe. Sandra came further into the room, and William went to her side. He delicately took her hand, and he helped her sit. It looked as if it were something a knight would do for a queen. And, despite Sandra's apparent ire earlier, she couldn't help but smile a bit at her husband.

"The guest of honor is here, gentlemen." William nodded at the guys. "You know what to do."

They had already planned this, and Sandra frowned at them all, unsure what was next.

Grant inhaled, designated as the one to start.

"HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!" The tuneless sound of Grant's singing echoed madly around the room, and then Troy and William joined in and created what amounted to a cacophony of noise.

William watched her face. And, in spite of her best efforts, Sandra Lee Sexton burst into laughter at the ridiculousness of the men in the room.

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

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