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CHAPTER 14 ~ COLLAPSE
"He's going to be okay, isn't he?"
Perched on the edge of the uncomfortable visitor's chair, Natalie tucked her hands, palms-together, between her knees and rocked a little, her anxious gaze on her boss.
"I mean, he just fainted, right?" She looked up at Valois.
"The doctor says it's exhaustion," Valois replied, his eyes never leaving Gunther's face. "He's over-worked and needs to rest."
"God, I was so scared!" Natalie shivered. "He just went down like a sack of spuds! I've never seen anyone pass out before. I thought he was dead!"
"Non, madame." Valois finally tore his gaze away from Gunther and smiled gently at her. "He will be fine. They might keep him in overnight for observation, but I am certain that he will be discharged in the morning."
Natalie looked up at him. "Where's he going to go? Back home?" She gnawed on her lower lip. "I, um, he begged me not to say anything, but I'm guessing you know anyway. I think things are bad for him at home right now..."
"They are, yes. I will take care of him, ma chère. I have no intention of leaving him at the mercy of his wife."
"He... he makes people feel protective, doesn't he?" Natalie reached across the hospital bed to take Gunther's hand in hers, stroking her thumb over the back of it as she turned her gaze back onto him. "I mean, I'd kill anyone who hurt him, I swear I would."
Valois chuckled. "I shall call you 'la lionne', the lioness. Oui, madame, he inspires protection in those around him. Well, in some of those around him. Those with hearts, who care."
"I met his wife once, soon after I was hired." Natalie's lips thinned. "It was at the company's Snowflake Day party. She was all dolled up and hanging off Mr Goth like he was her prized possession. And when he introduced me as his new secretary..." She shuddered. "Ugh! She looked at me as if I was something nasty she'd just scraped off the sole of her shoe."
"Ma chère, you are young and pretty. She was jealous."
"Damn right she was jealous. I saw them later on that night. She'd cornered him by the bar and was nagging him. His head was down and she was right up in his face. Oooh," Natalie growled, "I could've stomped over there and hauled her off him, if I wasn't so new to the job and desperate to keep it!"
"That would have made for an interesting ice-breaker." Valois sounded amused.
"Nose-breaker more like. Never liked the cow after seeing that." Natalie looked up. "But you won't hurt him, will you? I can sense you, and I don't think you will. You love him."
Valois fixed an intent look on her, but before he could say anything a soft sound from the supine body on the bed made him take a step closer.
"Gunther? Mon chéri?"
"The fuck happened?" Gunther opened his eyes and struggled to prop himself up on his elbows. His eyes rolled back momentarily, making Natalie squeak in alarm, then he shook his head to clear it. "Ugh, god. Someone tell me what happened--" He looked around and blinked. "--and they can also tell me what the hell I'm doing in hospital. Valois?"
"You passed out." Valois crouched by the bed and took Gunther's hand in both of his, cradling it tenderly. "Exhaustion, the doctor says. You must rest. No more work for a while."
"But... the merger! It has to be finalised by Friday--"
"It must be finalised without you." Valois pressed a kiss to the back of Gunther's hand. "Please, mon chéri, you are over-worked. Let me take care of you, just for a few weeks, and you can return once you have rested."
"Now you listen to me, Mr Goth," Natalie cut in. "I've been working for you for almost three years now, and I've not known you take more than two days off in a row - and those were weekends! - since I've been there. You're bloody well taking a holiday if I have to lock you out of the office myself!"
Gunther sagged back against the pillow with a sigh. "Okay, okay. Anything for a quiet life." He looked up at Valois, then, and added in a whisper, "I'm not going home, Valois. I can't."
"Non. I will take you somewhere safe where you and I shall shut ourselves away from the world."
"The Sunset Motel? Hey, make sure he can still walk when he comes back, okay?" Natalie suddenly erupted in giggles and Gunther closed his eyes with a groan.
"You didn't tell me that holiday was overseas," Gunther said as he strapped himself into his plane seat and checked the seat pocket in front of him for the inflight magazine.
"Mon chéri, when it is necessary to get away, then it may as well be far away." Valois watched him fondly. "You fly well, I take it? I should have asked before I booked the tickets."
Gunther just grinned at him. "After the number of international conferences I've attended, if I didn't fly well then I would have resigned and taken up fishing, or something."
"I may not take to this as easily as you." Valois settled back and closed his eyes. "This is my first time in one of these machines."
Gunther hesitated at the oddness of that phrasing, then put the magazine back into the seat pocket. "You've never flown before? But... how did you get to Sunset Valley from France?"
The reply was a shake of the head and a whisper of, "By sea."
Gunther looked down. Valois's hand was gripping the arm of the seat tightly, his knuckles even paler than the rest of his snowy skin.
Quietly, Gunther reached for that hand, prising it away from the seat arm - which he then pushed up between the seat backs - and clasping it between both of his palms in a warm, reassuring grasp. Valois tilted his head to face him against the seat back, but didn't open his eyes. He merely smiled and whispered, " Merci, mon chéri."
"It's not so bad," Gunther murmured as the shunter pushed the plane away from its stand and they began the slow taxi down to the runway. "Just a lot of noise to begin with, and a little bit of shaking, then you'll be pushed back into your seat pretty hard for a while. And once we level off, don't be alarmed when you hear the engine noise drop, okay? First time I flew, I thought the engines had stopped because it suddenly went so quiet, so forewarned is forearmed. Oh, and your eardrums might hurt a bit, too. Air pressure."
Valois opened his eyes briefly, smiled at him again, then closed his eyes once more. "I shall be happier when my feet are on the ground again."
Something deep inside Gunther knotted up; this time a pleasant little hug of a knot. That Valois would overcome this new, fearful thing, just for him? Oh god, it made him feel so loved.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw the departure board," he whispered as the stewardess began the pre-flight safety routine. "France? You're taking me to your home?"
"Yes. Well, not quite my home. That is long-gone. But a town that I lived in when I was younger. It is a small, peaceful place with a river and an island, some ruins and a wonderful vineyard." Valois chuckled. "I worked there as a boy. I am quite the vintner, you should know."
Gunther couldn't hold the question back any longer. "Valois... how old are you?"
"Twenty-six." Valois opened his eyes and smiled. "In my heart, anyway."
"And in reality?"
The expression on Valois's beautiful face was so sorrowful that Gunther wished he'd never asked, but the question was in the air between them now, and he waited for an answer.
"I... don't know."
"You don't know? I don't understand. Why don't you know?"
Those ruby eyes gazed at him and then closed as Valois sighed. "I have forgotten," he whispered.
Struck dumb, all that Gunther could do was lift Valois's hand to his lips to kiss it, and then hold onto it as the plane turned onto the runway and the engine note rose to full throttle.