[ If you have been linked here directly, please click here first to read the disclaimer. ]
CHAPTER 29 ~ SUPPORT
The town was barely awake as Natalie hung her jacket over the back of her chair and busied herself with the coffee machine. In recent weeks she'd taken to coming into work earlier and earlier; anything to escape the crap that was going on at home. Charlie had been going to the pub after work most nights and not getting in until after midnight, reeking of beer and god alone knew what else.
She stared through the coffee machine as it spluttered and coughed, dribbling hot java into the mug she'd placed under its spout. For the last three or four nights that beer stink had been joined by perfume stink, and she knew that a confrontation was in their near future. Or an ultimatum. She wasn't quite sure which she preferred. Now she knew why Mr Goth had spent so many nights sleeping in his suite at the office.
She sighed. Her poor boss had been through even more than she had, so it was hardly surprising that he'd been neither nigh nor by since he'd returned home from France. The office was ticking over well enough, and Mr Danner was a perfectly pleasant stand-in, but she missed Gunther more than she cared to admit.
The coffee machine announced that her mugful was done with a final splatter that made her jump back for fear of getting coffee stains on her pale silk top. Grabbing a tissue from the discreet box on her desk, she mopped up the splashes on the counter and picked up the drink. One almost lip-burning sip, and she sighed. Ahh, that was better.
"Mr Goth!" The mug went back down on the machine in an instant. "Oh my god, I didn't expect to see you here!"
"Well... I thought I'd get in early, before everyone else and their curiosity showed up." He gave her a sheepish grin. "I'm not here for work anyway," he added, gesturing to his jeans and leather jacket. "Just needed to see Nick when he gets in. And you."
He smiled at her. "Hey, you're growing out your hair? It looks nice."
She poked out her tongue at him. "Yeah yeah, flattery gets you everywhere. Coffee's on its way."
He sighed. "Am I really that obvious?"
"Yep, you oughta--" A hand on her wrist stilled her preparation of a second cup of coffee, and she turned to look at Gunther. "You want the coffee to wait?" she asked quietly, and he nodded.
"I got in this early for a reason," he said. "Sit down?"
She settled in one of the leather club chairs that normally housed visitors to DP Corporate, and waited while he sank into the chair beside her.
She'd never seen him like this before: slouched in a chair in casual clothes, the very picture of dejection. It was unsettling, and it brought out the fierce, protective side of her; that part of her that had caused Gunther's French boyfriend to dub her 'the lioness'.
Oh, she suddenly thought. Oh no. Don't tell me they've split up. And they seemed so right for each other, too!
"I've had some pretty tough decisions to make," he began hoarsely, and Natalie's stomach dropped. She couldn't help but blurt out:
"You're not quitting, are you? Please tell me you're not--"
"No, not quitting. It's more personal than that."
"I'm divorcing Cornelia," he murmured. "And I'm going to look like the biggest shit in town when I do. And then, because Mort knows about Valois, I also have to come out to the entire town. Which will make me look like an even bigger shit, especially after what's happened with Cornelia, because I just know that half the town will think I've been seeing him behind her back for years and that caused all of her... problems. And the cherry on top is that I have to do all of this while not tarnishing the company's image. Not looking too promising, is it?"
"Well," Natalie ventured, "couldn't your... um, couldn't Monsieur Fulcanelli help with that a bit? You know, with the magic? It worked on Charlie. He stopped talking about me giving up work so I could become his bloody brood mare, after all," she finished, bitterly.
Gunther hesitated, looking at her in silence for a moment. Then, he said softly, "We'll talk about that in a sec, all right? No worming out of it. But first, I just wanted to tell you what I have to do, partly because you'll be the one fielding calls from the media and partly because I regard you as a friend. And then--" He sighed. "I have to tell the board of directors."
"Is that why you wanted to see Mr Alto?"
"Yeah. I want him to hear it from me before I call the meeting for tomorrow. I need his feedback. I need him on my side."
"He seemed sympathetic to what's happened. I mean, I saw his reply to your post on Simbook the other day."
"That was about Cornelia. He doesn't know about Valois, and you know how old-fashioned Nick can be..."
"I'll say it again," Natalie said softly, placing a hand on his knee and dropping the formalities. "Valois can help. Just a little nudge, yeah? He'd do it, for you. I know he would. Just to, y'know, tilt Mr Alto's opinion in the right direction. Trust me; I'm a-- Well I'm sort of a bit witchy, okay?"
He gave her a weak smile. "Okay. I'll call him in a while, before I go and see Nick. And now I've spilled my guts, you're going to spill yours. Out with it. What's happening with your husband?"
"My stiletto through his forehead is what's happening, if he carries on the way he is." She sighed. Now it was her turn to slump back in her chair. "He's never home. Always out boozing with his 'friends' and coming home stinking of perfume."
"Are you going to do anything about it?" Gunther asked her softly. "Apart from the stiletto through the forehead thing."
That made her grin, but it faded quickly. "I suppose confront him about it. Which, yeah. Not going to be nice. So I guess we both have unpleasant things to face in our near futures."
Gunther was quiet for several minutes, and she began to worry that she'd said the wrong thing. Maybe she shouldn't have burdened him with her personal life? But, well, he did ask and all that!
"I never said this before, because it would've been really fucking unprofessional," he suddenly said. "I guess it still is, but to hell with it. If we were both single I would've asked you on a date, y'know. You're great fun, you're beautiful, you've got enough sass to keep my ego in check..." He smiled at her, ruefully. "Just a shame we weren't both single, eh?"
"Ooh, now dating the boss would've got me some perks, right?" Natalie poked his arm and grinned, striking a dreamy pose. "Let's see now... sitting on your knee while taking notes... oh, and I'd have to wear reeeally short skirts..."
"Oh god, what have I done?" He covered his eyes for a second, then laughed. "Forget I ever said all of that, okay?"
"No." She smiled at him. "I won't forget it. In fact, I'll keep it, because it's a nice thing to know. Thank you. And, y'know, if we'd both been single, I'd have said yes to that date. And others after it, if you'd asked."
She saw him glance at the clock. Ah, yes. Mr Alto would just be getting in by now.
"Did you want that coffee before you go and see him?" she asked.
"Please. And Natalie?"
"Yeah?" She was already on her feet, but turned to look back at him as he stood up.
"If things get bad at home, you have my number. I mean, if shit gets really bad, you get the hell out, okay? And you call me. I'll come and fetch you, if you need me to. That's an order from your boss as well as a plea from your friend."
"I will. Thanks."
"And, y'know, now that I'm happily settled in my crazy little tiny home on the edge of town, if you need to get away for a night or two, you can use my suite here."
"Promise me you changed the sheets after the last time you and Valois were here..."
He rolled his eyes, then pecked a kiss to her cheek. "You're the rock in the stream of my life," he murmured. "Don't ever change."
She watched him head into his office with his coffee, something small and wistful curling up inside her. Well crap. If only they'd both been single...
She sighed, and turned back to the coffee machine.