Samples--Christmas at Valley Rise

Meet Staci and Carter--the current generation at Valley Rise
Chapter One
Standing elbow to elbow between her mother and grandmother at the big kitchen work table, Staci wiped sweat from her forehead and thought once again that everything about this Christmas seemed to be a little bit out of sync. 
To her right, her mother paused to roll up her sleeves and take a long drink of iced tea, voicing the thought in that uncanny way she had of seeming to read her mind.  “Mama, I’ve never known it to be this warm, except maybe right before that blizzard back in ’94.  This weather worries me.”
Grandma Ruthie peered around Staci to flash her daughter a reassuring smile.  “Now, Em, worrying about the weather is a waste of good brain power.  Worry about these rolls, if anything.  In this heat, they’re likely to spread all over the place before we get them in the oven.”  Wiping the flour from her hands, Grandma raised the hem of her apron to dab at the beads of moisture on her upper lip.  “Staci, honey, would you pour some tea for both of us?  I think I’ll just have a seat out in the sunroom while these rise.”  Carefully settling a dishtowel over the pan of bread dough, she glanced at the wall clock and frowned.
“What time are we expecting them, and how many are coming in tonight?”   Now it was her mother’s thoughts Em was reading.
“The plane from London was getting into Dulles at three, so with any luck, they should be here by supper time.  Six, or so, I’d guess.  And it’s just Stani and Emily tonight.  Andrew and Ingrid are staying over in Washington for a day or two with Emma Claire, and Ian and his bride will get in from Chicago sometime tomorrow.  I expect Carter will drive down as soon as his classes are done, tomorrow or the next day.  The rest will get here by Sunday.”  Her grandmother’s eyes were fixed on the pitcher as Staci poured, but she knew Ruthie was visualizing the faces associated with each name as she went through the list.  This family she had served for almost forty years was as much hers as the children she’d given birth to.  In fact, Staci had wondered at times if her grandparents hadn’t both worried more over the Moss children and grandchildren because their lives were so much more complicated than anyone’s could ever be here in the valley.  They had closely followed their careers, keeping track of the various concerts, tours and recordings, taking pride in the accolades and shedding tears over the personal trials among the members of the ever-growing clan.
Anticipating her mother’s next question, Staci spoke up.  “And Uncle Rob?  When does he get here?”
Ruthie’s eyes brightened at the mention of her eldest son.  “Tomorrow night.”  Taking her glass, she turned toward the sunroom with another glance at the clock.  “Check the hams, will you, honey?”
Across the table, Staci met her mother’s sharp gaze.  “Let’s hope he makes it this time,” Em said under her breath.
Staci frowned, shaking her head slightly.  Now was not the time for her mother to upset her grandmother.  “Let it go, Mom.  He’ll be here,” she whispered.  Ruthie might be slowing down in some ways, especially in recent months, but her hearing was still perfect, and she wouldn’t tolerate any criticism of the one she herself sometimes called “her wandering sheep.”
Turning to the big range, Staci opened the oven door, cringing as the blast of heat entered the already overly warm room.  How could she feel like Christmas, when sweat was trickling down her ribs beneath her t-shirt, her mother and grandmother were a hair away from a “discussion”—they never argued, but those “discussions” could get pretty heated—and Carter Moss was on his way to Valley Rise to finish breaking her heart?  With a final poke of the long-handled fork that produced a satisfying flow of juice from the ham, she closed the oven door with a bang.  “They look fine, Grandma.  Another half hour before the pineapple, I’d say.”  Taking up her own glass, Staci started toward the front of the house.
“Where are you off to?”  Her mother looked up from fluting a pie crust, her brows arching sharply.
“The front porch.”  A split second turn into the laundry room to grab the broom and she congratulated herself on thinking fast.  Air was what she needed, and a few minutes to herself.  If just the mention of Carter’s name made her stomach twist, how would she make it through the next week with him right here in this house?  A few minutes alone, a good sound lecture on the futility of dreaming, and she’d be okay, at least for a while.  When that shiny little silver Mazda pulled through the gate, she might have to come up with another excuse to run away.
A month ago, just four short weeks, she’d been so sure this was going to be the best Christmas she’d ever known.  But now that it was all too clear where things stood, she would be forced to smile, act normal, and for the first time in her life endure rather than celebrate the holiday that had always been her favorite time of year.
Propping the broom against the wall by the front door, Staci was drawn to the porch swing, staring forlornly at its faded cushions before sitting down with a sigh.  Right here, on Thanksgiving night, while the house had been full of people talking and laughing around the dinner table, she had sat with Carter and felt the earth move for the first time. 
Boys had never been all that interesting to her.  She’d been a terrible tomboy, preferring sports to dating and finding most boys more annoying than attractive.  Of course, Carter had always been different from other boys, so different in fact that she’d never really thought of him as a boy.  He was just Carter, serious, shy and so immersed in his music he seemed to look right through a person at times.  They’d grown up together, spent every summer here at the farm, but they’d never really played together because Carter didn’t play like most kids.  He played the violin, literally all of the time, and if he wasn’t playing the violin, he was talking about it, or learning about it, spending hours on end with his grandfather in the studio in the old red barn.  Carter had always been polite, always smiled when he saw her—he had a smile that made you feel you were special, until you realized he smiled that way at most people.  Oddly, she had never thought of him as more than just another member of the family until last summer.
At nineteen, Carter Moss had suddenly grown up.  He had blossomed overnight from a quiet, introverted boy into a stunningly attractive young man.  For Staci, the first glimpse of him coming across the backyard that summer day, deep in animated conversation with his grandfather, had jolted to life the dormant woman within her, stirring emotions she’d never imagined herself capable of.  Like some sappy heroine in a romance novel, she’d gone weak-kneed and light-headed in the moment he turned to look up at her where she stood at the back door, probably with her mouth hanging open.  She could still see him, his wind-ruffled red hair shining in the sunlight, his brown eyes looking straight into her soul and that gorgeous smile that seemed to say how happy he was to see her.  Of course, he had merely called to her, “Hey Staci, what’s new?” but she’d heard in his tone a tenderness and longing that set her pulse racing and her stomach churning.  Unfortunately, the only response she’d managed to utter was “Hey!”
For two months, as they worked together in the music camp that was held at Valley Rise each summer, Staci had gotten better and better acquainted with this newly emerged Carter.  They had become good friends, talking together for hours, sharing their plans and ambitions.  The more she learned, the more she was convinced that moment at the back door had been the turning point of her life.  Carter had asked what’s new, and now she thought she knew the answer.  They were new, two people suddenly finding each other, discovering their destinies and hovering at the threshold of falling in love.  The fact that Carter never gave any indication he shared her vision hadn’t bothered her at all.  She could see it clearly enough for the both of them, and in time he could be shown the way.  It was enough to sit and talk with him, to watch the way he thought before he spoke, the little frown that said he couldn’t understand something, or the flash of a smile when he came upon a sudden insight.  Knowing that they might be apart for months once he left for the conservatory in Boston, Staci took advantage of that time to memorize every detail, from the green flecks in his brown eyes, to the soft, rust-colored beard that covered his cheeks.  She knew his scent, the aroma of expensive milled soap, and the depth of his laugh on those rare occasions when he really laughed out loud. 
She wanted to learn everything there was to know about him.  What he didn’t provide himself, she managed to glean from her grandmother.  Ruthie was a masterful story-teller, an art form still appreciated here in the little valley.  Staci had always loved to set her going, carefully choosing a subject that would call to mind a story and then sitting back to listen.  The Mosses were the source of endless tales, and the mention of any fragment of their history guaranteed an hour or so of entertainment and enlightenment.  Now Staci needed the details of Carter’s father Ian’s life, most importantly, the ill-fated marriage that had produced his only son.  While she had never heard the whole story, Staci knew enough to understand that the affair had been at first intensely romantic and in the end emotionally devastating.  After hearing her grandmother tell of that time almost twenty years earlier, she also sensed the impact it might have on any relationship she hoped to share with Carter.
While their lives differed in many ways, they had each lost a parent in early childhood.  It had been something they’d shared over the years and especially during those long, quiet talks last summer.  Although the circumstances had been different—Carter’s  mother had died when he was just an infant, while Staci’s father had moved away after he and her mother divorced the year she was four years old—each could sympathize with the other’s situation.  While her loss hadn’t been as tragic as Carter’s, the fact that her father had started over in Atlanta with a new wife and had three children—brothers and a sister Staci had never gotten to know—had been difficult for her to accept.  Even now, when she was almost twenty years old, she resented being so thoughtlessly left behind and replaced in her father’s new life.  But she’d loved her life here.  She and her mother had moved into the caretaker’s cottage at Valley Rise with her grandparents and Uncle Rick.  She had grown up roaming the farm and the woods, been cherished by her own family and the Mosses, and known in her heart that had her father stayed here, life would have been much more complicated.  For Carter, she knew, things had been much harder.
Setting the swing in motion, Staci let out another sigh.  What did it matter that she understood Carter, or believed she could ease his pain?  What she had imagined as a budding romance had proven to be nothing at all beyond one sweet kiss.  He had promised but never delivered.  For whatever reason, Carter Moss had said one thing and done another.  And now when they met again, she would be on her guard, just in case he tried to make another promise he never intended to keep.
Still, a nagging voice in her head argued, it had seemed so real in that moment when he’d turned to her, his face illuminated by the golden light from the house, and interrupted the flow of her conversation.  His expression had been intense, but unreadable, and she’d paused in mid-sentence, waiting expectantly for whatever he had to say. 
“Staci, there’s something I’ve been wanting to do.”  He hesitated, his eyes scanning her face as if mapping every feature.  “Be very still, please.”  It was an odd thing for him to say but she’d obeyed, holding her breath as he raised his hand to her cheek.  “You won’t mind, will you?”  Before she could answer, his lips had pressed hers in the briefest of kisses.  He’d drawn back slightly to meet her stunned gaze, and then once again his mouth had covered hers, this time with much more conviction. 
Somehow her arms had found their way around his neck, her fingers had woven into the thick curls at the back of his head, and her entire being had focused on Carter’s lips moving over hers.  She had never imagined a kiss could consist of so many sensations, soft, warm, pleasantly moist and undeniably insistent.  A kiss like that required a response, something to match each degree of contact.  With a little moan, she returned the gentle pressure until it was no longer gentle, but demanding, urgent and thrilling.  Carter’s arms had gathered her close, so close she thought she could feel each beat of his heart against hers.  They seemed to cling together there on the swing, as it was lifted on a gentle whirlwind and sent soaring above the farmhouse.  If he let go of her, she would sail off across the valley, she was quite sure.  But he hadn’t let go.  Even when he stopped kissing her, he’d pressed her head into his shoulder and laid his cheek against her hair, heaving a long sigh. 
“That’s what you’ve been wanting to do?” she breathed against warm tweed of his jacket.
“Oh yes.”  Another moment of holding her close, and he raised his head, as if struck by a sudden thought.  “You didn’t mind, did you?”
“Oh no!”  She laughed softly at the sight of his slightly puzzled frown.  “Couldn’t you tell?”
She’d always wonder what might have happened next, if, from the doorway, his grandfather hadn’t called him to come inside.  “Time to play for your supper, lad.  Your grandmother has been kept waiting long enough.”  Carter had given her shoulders a gentle squeeze before getting to his feet.  That was all, it was over, and as she rose to follow him, she wondered if her knees were visibly wobbling. 
It was tradition here that every family gathering include at least a brief concert.  Instruments were brought out and the players gathered around the old grand piano.  Chairs were dragged forward for the audience and everyone took turns choosing the music to be played, shouting out their selections over the enthusiastic applause that followed each piece.  Like his grandfather, Carter was a violinist, but he also played cello and clarinet.  In fact each family member was skilled on several instruments, and between them all they made up a sizable chamber orchestra.  Squeezed in around the piano, they played together with intensity and unabashed joy, sharing the one thing they all loved most.  Since her earliest memory, Staci had been awed by the talent in this family that had chosen to include her as one of their own. 
Taking her place on the floor near Carter’s grandmother Emily, Staci let her mind return to those magical moments such a short time earlier.  What had made him do it, kiss her like that, and what had he meant, he’d been “wanting to?”  She watched as he tuned his violin to the piano, completely focused on the act of plucking strings.  A chill touched the back of her neck.  This boy she had known all her life had with one kiss become the man she knew she would love for the rest of that life.  It was as simple as that.  Out there in the swing, in Carter’s arms, she had fallen irretrievably in love.  She would never be the same after tonight, no matter what the future held for them. 
She had shivered, and Emily had seen it, leaning over solicitously to ask if she was cold.  No, she smiled, she was okay.  But as the music started, and her eyes settled on Carter once more, Staci had wondered if she would ever be just “okay” again.
Digging her toes into the porch floor, she gave the swing a hard push, leaning back on the cushion and closing her eyes.  What had happened?  And what would happen when they were face to face again?  As the weeks passed after Thanksgiving and it became agonizingly clear that Carter had changed his mind, Staci had envisioned a number of scenarios for their next meeting.  Most included her own cool reception to Carter’s presence.  Some evolved to his pathetically confessing his mistake and groveling for her forgiveness.  At least once, she’d cried herself to sleep at the thought that he would act as if nothing had ever passed between them, treating her as he always had, with polite and impersonal indifference.  The more practical side of her being, the side that was usually in control of her life, accepted that she couldn’t second-guess him, that she would just have to wait to find out why he hadn’t done as he’d promised.  Or she might never know, no matter how long she waited.  But the romantic side, the one she kept under wraps and out of sight, held onto the hope that she hadn’t just imagined the kiss had meant something to him too.
“Staci!  Are you asleep?”  Her mother’s voice cut into her daydream, and she opened her eyes abruptly. 
“No ma’am.  Just cooling off.”
“I’m going to take a quick shower.  Will you keep your ears open for the timer?  Grandma’s going to freshen up too.”
“Sure.  I’ll get cleaned up after the two of you are done.  I think I might run to the mall after supper and pick up my paycheck.” 
“You don’t want to run off right after they get here.  Can’t it wait?”
She hesitated, trying to think of an answer that wasn’t a lie.  “I might have a little shopping left to do, you know.  Christmas is just three days off.”  In spite of her bleak mood, she grinned.  The “shopping” was actually paying out her layaway at the department store across from the shop where she worked part time.  She’d put away a new winter coat for her mother during the big sale after Thanksgiving, and tonight, she would pick it up and take it to a friend at the giftwrap kiosk who had promised to do it up extra special.  Em had been wearing the same coat to church every winter Sunday for the past ten years.  This one had cost the biggest chunk of Staci’s holiday budget, but it would be more than worth it to see her face on Christmas morning.  As she followed her mother back into the house, she decided that no matter what happened she wasn’t going to let it spoil her Christmas completely.  Some things, singing at the church service on Christmas Eve and opening presents with her family the next morning, delivering meals to the shut-ins at dinner time on Christmas day, those things would always be special, with or without Carter Moss.  

Chapter Two
Through the crowd of travelers rushing toward their connections, Carter spotted his grandparents. Hard to miss them, he thought as he hurried in their direction.  They looked like movie stars, or even royalty.  His famous grandfather was still recognized wherever they went, even now that his signature red hair had turned to a mane of stunning white.  And today there was a uniformed driver at the end of the ramp holding a sign that read “Stani Moss,” advertising their arrival. 
Carter caught up with them where the ramp opened onto the concourse, reaching out to lay a hand on his grandfather’s shoulder.  “Pardon me, Sir Stani, but might I have your autograph?” he asked in his best British accent. 
His question was greeted with a startled glare, and then his grandfather’s handsome face split into a grin.  “Carter!  What’s the meaning of this, sneaking up on an old man?”
Hugs, kisses and laughter, along with an intense eye-to-eye examination by his grandmother, and Carter felt himself start to relax a little.  The confusion that had clouded his brain all morning lifted as he walked between the two of them, answering the barrage of questions and posing a few of his own. 
“So what’s the plan?  And by the way, thanks for the plane ticket.  After finals, I probably wasn’t in the best shape to drive down.”
“You look exhausted, Carter.  Are they working you that hard?”  Her eyes continuing to search his face, Emily Moss linked her arm in his, falling in step beside him.  His grandmother was still a beautiful woman, tall and elegant.  Her long dark hair was woven with streaks of silver, placed so strategically that she’d been accused of having them added by her hairdresser, and her skin was as flawless as a girl’s without the aid of more than a trace of makeup.  Dressed today in a bright red coat trimmed in black fur, she was turning heads all along their path through the airport.  Carter felt the swell of pride that always came when he was with these two people he loved best in the world.
“Holiday concerts, Gran.  I’m a working musician, remember.  Not to mention a full-time student.  But I’m fine.  Just need a little country air to revive me.  They had reached the luggage carousel and Stani joined the driver to await their bags.  “And how are you two?  Good trip?”
“Oh, yes.  We took London by storm.  Poor Stani hardly had a moment to breath, but it was wonderful.  Command performances always are.  But, oh, it will be so good to get home!  We’re staying all winter, you know?  Some real time off!”
Carter grinned at his grandmother’s enthusiasm.  They traveled the world, never staying in one place for long, but the little farm hidden away in the hills was home to them and always would be.  The best parts of his own childhood had been spent there.  His grandparents had seen to it that he had peace and security, that he was loved and allowed to grow up a safe distance from the tragedy of his father’s life.  Looking at her now, as excited as a child about returning home for Christmas, Carter put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her close.  “That’s wonderful, Gran.  I’ll have to try to get down for a visit now and then.”
As he stepped forward to grab his own bag from the carousel, he had another thought.  Visiting the farm might not be same now.  In the past, he’d not only looked forward to being with his family, but with a certain girl who’d always made him feel oddly happy, just by being his friend.  His stupid attempt to turn that friendship into something more might have forever spoiled that.  The thought made his stomach churn and prompted a long involuntary sigh.  But before he turned back to his grandmother, he made sure to put a smile on his lips.  Gran had a gift for reading his mind, and these thoughts were not ones he wanted exposed just now.
In the limo, as Carter settled himself on the seat across from his grandparents, he watched with mild amusement as Stani took out his cellphone.  After a moment of attempting to focus, he reached inside his overcoat for the long-resisted reading glasses.  “Technology assumes that no one under the age of forty will be using these things.  Ah, there it is.  From Rob.  ‘Tell Mama on time.  Tomorrow!’”  Looking up over the rim of the glasses, he grinned.  “My Christmas present to myself.  I haven’t seen Robbie Joe—Rob—in ten years.  Oh, we keep in touch, but I felt this year it was essential that he get home for the holidays.”  The grin faded, as he tucked the phone back in his pocket.  “It was such a pity he couldn’t make it for Bobby’s funeral.  But I know Ruthie understood.”
Reaching over to pat his hand, Emily nodded.  “Ruthie understood.  And it was all beyond Rob’s control.  He could hardly be blamed for a pilots’ strike.  But I’m afraid Em is still disappointed in him for not getting there some way.”  She rested her head briefly on her husband’s shoulder.  “Oh, well.  I’m sure once he’s there, she’ll forget her disappointment.  Family has a way of overlooking things once they’re all gathered around a Christmas tree.”
“Speaking of family, how many of ours will be here?”  Carter thought he should know the answer, but in the past few weeks he’d found it hard to hold on to details like that. 
“All of us.  Every one.  Won’t it be wonderful?”  Gran’s question seemed to demand an answer.  Carter squirmed just a bit on the seat.
“Yes, ma’am.  I’m sure it will be.  Once we’re all gathered around the Christmas tree.”  He turned his gaze to the passing scenery, finding it impossible to meet those searching gray eyes. 
Wonderful was hardly the word he would use to describe a holiday spent in the same house with his new stepmother.  But for the first time, Gloria would be joining a Moss family gathering.  Only right, he supposed, but she wouldn’t fit in, and he felt sure everyone would find it awkward trying to include her.  To make things worse, she was pregnant.  At forty, his father was starting over with a wife barely more than half his age and now there was a baby on the way. 
Carter had only met her twice.  Once to “get to know her” and the second time at the wedding itself.  His father had suggested he might like to be part of the wedding party, a groomsman perhaps, but he’d declined the honor, preferring to sit and watch the ridiculous spectacle of his father standing at the altar awaiting his blushing young bride.  Of course, with his grandparents on either side of him in the pew, Carter had kept his cool, hoping to hide the ugly thoughts that insisted on entering his mind.  His father had for so long sworn that there would never be another woman after Carter’s mother, that he was a man meant to live alone, even to the exclusion of his only son, and now he was grinning like a silly schoolboy as the great white dress glided down the aisle toward him, a dress so huge and over-embellished that the girl inside was barely visible.
Gloria was a tiny, almost childlike woman who dressed herself to be noticed, as if clothes could make up for her lack of size.  The first time Carter met her, she was wearing a hot pink pantsuit with a jacket that reached below her knees and high heels that elevated her at least six inches above her natural height.  With her long, dangling earrings, her blonde hair piled high on her head, she’d given the impression of a little girl playing dress-up.  To complete the image, she spoke in a high-pitched, breathless voice and seemed to be constantly licking at her bright pink lip gloss, as if addicted to what smelled at least like its cherry flavor.  What his father saw in this caricature of everything revolting in a female, Carter couldn’t imagine.  The little respect he’d begun to regain for Ian had evaporated immediately. 
“Carter, your grandfather asked you a question.”  Emily’s voice gently penetrated his thoughts, and Carter turned abruptly from the window.
“I’m so sorry.  What was that, Grandfather?”
“I asked if you brought your violin.  I didn’t notice it with your bags.”
“Yes, sir.  Right here.”  He rapped the hard top of the carry-on resting on the seat beside him.  “I find it easier to put the case in this, along with my laptop.  Keeps them both safe, and then I only have one thing to lose.”  He grinned, knowing Stani would recognize the absentminded gene that plagued all the men in the Moss family. 
Emily smiled conspiratorially.  “Your grandfather has something special in mind this year.  He’s worried that everyone will leave their instruments at home and spoil his plans.”
“Not worried, darling.  Just concerned that we can’t accommodate everyone and might have to leave someone out.”  Stani winked at Carter, as he leaned over to kiss his wife’s cheek.
“Ah, and what exactly is this you have planned?  Not a parade around the courthouse square, with everyone in marching band formation?”
“Ha!  Although that isn’t a bad idea.  But no, this time I just want the whole lot of us to make a recording.  We’ve never really laid down any formal tracks, and I think it’s time, now that everyone will be together, including Robbie—Rob.  I even considered choosing a vocal piece and asking Staci to sing with us.”
“Doesn’t that sound exciting?  The Moss Family Chamber Orchestra’s first recording.  We’ll sell it to raise money for the camp.  Isn’t he brilliant, Carter?  He came up with the idea all on his own.”  Emily returned the favor, planting a kiss on Stani’s cheek and running an elegant hand through his hair. 
“But do you really think all these soloists will be willing to share the billing?  And will Uncle Andrew want to conduct, now that he’s the big maestro in Munich?  And what if Aunt Emma doesn’t drag her cello all the way from DC?  You’re right to be worried, Grandfather.  The logistics alone of getting us all to the barn may be too much.”  Carter grinned in response to the play of emotions that crossed his grandfather’s face, ending with one close to dismay.  “Just kidding.  It’ll be a blast!  May I be first violin, or will you give that to Rob?”
“I thought we’d all draw straws, actually.  More democratic and less likely to bruise any egos.  And I’m counting on you to recruit Staci, since the two of you are such good friends.”
Two pairs of expectant eyes pinned him to the seat, waiting for his response.  Did they somehow know?  He searched his mind for anything that might have given him away.  Had they seen the two of them together at Thanksgiving?  Maybe they’d heard something from Staci’s family?  His heart started to thump and he squirmed again, like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“Good heavens, Carter.  You look as if you’d just been asked to brave a lion in its den.  If you don’t want to ask Staci, I’m sure Stani will do it.  We just thought you might like to offer her the invitation yourself.”  Now he was certain Gran was on to him.  Her concerned stare seemed to bore right into his forehead, examining the whirl of anguished confusion set in motion by the very mention of Staci’s name.
“No, I’ll do it.  It’s just. . .well, I don’t know if she’ll have the time, you know, with her job and. . .and choir practice and. . .well, I’ll just ask her, I guess.”  He clamped his jaws together before any further gibberish gushed forth.  But it was too late.  Now they were both looking at him that way. 
His grandfather reached over to pat his knee with a sympathetic little smile.  “Maybe it would be better if I asked her, lad.  By the time you get done stammering out the invitation, the holidays will be over.”
Thankfully, they dropped the subject and for the next two hours, they talked as they always had, about anything and everything, each opening a random topic and the others joining in.  This, Carter knew, was his real family, the ones who understood him and loved him unconditionally.  The aunts and uncles and cousins were wonderful and he treasured each one, but his grandparents had raised him, saved him in fact.  They brought out the very best in him, simply because they never demanded anything of him.  If he was moody or withdrawn, they left him to sort things out, making certain he knew he could always seek them out for advice or simply for a sounding board.  When he was angry or depressed, particularly following those horrible childhood visits with his father, they had allowed him the time and space to recover without requiring any explanation for his behavior, which he had to admit had been rude and even disturbing at times.  Now they were the ones who were guiding his budding career and encouraging him to stay at the conservatory rather than launch out on his own too soon. 
“Gran, Grandfather, I want you to know how grateful I am for all you’re doing.”  The words burst forth right in the midst of a discussion of the unseasonably warm weather.  After a momentarily startled look from each of them, they smiled, and Emily’s eyes misted with tears.  “Sorry.”  He felt himself blush.  “But I don’t say it enough, and with everything going on once we get home, I was afraid I’d forget.  I love you guys, and I know that without you, I never stood a chance of growing up to be anything near normal.  And I promise no matter how hard it is I’ll be nice to Gloria and Dad.  For your sakes.”
While Emily searched her handbag for a tissue, Stani again laid a hand on his knee.  “Thank you, son.  That was lovely.  We love you back, and if it’s any consolation, we understand how it might be difficult to be nice, but we had no doubt you would be.”

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