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CHAPTER 36 ~ FEAR
"Fuck, I'm scared," Gunther muttered as he paced the floor of his office, fidgeting with his cufflinks and worrying at his lower lip with his teeth. Natalie still hadn't called to say that Mr Pakefield had arrived, and with every passing minute Gunther's stomach was churning even more.
"Come here." Valois held out a hand, and Gunther went to him immediately, wrapping himself around his lover and - if he admitted it - clinging to him.
Valois's fingers sifted into his hair, stroking and soothing as he kissed Gunther's temple. "Those nerves are gone now, hm?" he murmured. "Just quiet calmness remaining. Now be still and I will hold you until your meeting begins."
The nerves had, indeed, melted away, and not for the first time, Gunther realised he was blessed to have a powerful witch as his lover. He sighed as he pressed his cheek against Valois's chest and relaxed completely with a mumbled, "Love you."
"Je t'aime aussi, mon cœur," came the gentle reply, and he smiled.
"God, I love hearing you speak French. Will you read to me later?"
"Yeah. I know I won't understand most of it, but I love hearing it. A short story, or maybe some poetry?"
"Bien sûr, I would be happy to do this for you--"
Valois's words were interrupted by the ringing of the phone on Gunther's desk. Peeling away from Valois's arms with a sigh, Gunther answered it.
"Hi, Nat. Is he here at last? ... Okay, give me two minutes, then send them in."
He put down the phone and turned back to Valois, who kissed him. "Remember: you are calm and relaxed and at-ease," Valois said softly. "And I will be right next door in your suite. If you need me to come in, then I shall do so. Everything will be fine."
"Okay." Gunther gave him a weak smile, but when Valois suddenly winked and poked out his tongue, Gunther actually laughed.
"There." Valois's smile was smug. "That worked." One last kiss, and he walked into Gunther's suite, closing the door quietly behind him.
"Good God, man. I read the newspapers but didn't think you actually got into a full-blown scrap!"
"Well, when a fist is coming at your face there's not a lot else to do, Geoff." Gunther smiled at Mr Pakefield, gesturing to the boardroom chairs. "Please sit, gentlemen. I hope this won't take too long."
"Everything okay?" Arthur Dixon murmured, hesitating beside Gunther and eyeing his face. "You look pretty scuffed up."
"Everything's fine, thanks. Nothing a little antiseptic and a good, stiff drink didn't cure."
"Did I hear mention of a good, stiff drink"? Nick piped up, walking in. "Wouldn't say no, old boy."
Gunther chuckled. "Coffee, for now. Natalie's got the machine on the go, I believe. I can dish out the stronger stuff afterwards, though my offering will be poorer than your '61 Glenlivet."
With the directors and his friend sat around the table, Gunther settled in his own chair, waiting as Natalie placed a steaming cup of coffee in front of each attendee. She raised a questioning eyebrow to Gunther and he nodded, so she slipped into one of the more distant chairs, notebook and pencil in hand, ready to take the minutes.
"I suppose I should get the obvious out of the way first." Gunther gestured to his face. "This all came about after a reporter from one of the local gossip rags cornered me at the manor, making some foul accusations, and then took a swing at me when I threatened to throw him off my property, as - you all know - I was well within my rights to do."
"Damn right," Geoff Pakefield muttered. "A man's home is his castle and all that."
"Indeed." Gunther took a sip of his coffee. "It appears that the same reporter had been compiling a mostly-fabricated dossier on me for some time, and I will admit that I'm very concerned as to why, but I'm leaving that to the police for now. And, speaking of the police, both I and the reporter were arrested as a result of the fight, so I'm afraid I have the unfortunate badge of a criminal record now. I primarily wanted you here to reassure you that I will not allow this to affect the company or its image."
"Good God, old chap. I hardly think that should be a worry for you to--"
Holding up his hand, Gunther gently silenced Mr Dixon. "There's a little more to this than a simple brawl, Arthur. I have two things to tell you; one of which you may already suspect and one which... may come rather out of the blue."
He glanced at Nick, receiving a firm and supportive nod from his friend, so he forged ahead.
"The first thing is that I am instigating divorce proceedings against my wife. We've been unhappy for several years now, and our marriage had broken down completely long before the fire and her subsequent committal. I would have done this sooner, but... well, I'm sure you'll understand that one tries one's utmost to save a marriage when there are young children to consider."
The murmur of agreement around the table was a relief. Right. So that went okay. Now for the big one...
"The second item..." Gunther looked across the room to where Natalie sat. Out of sight of all-but him, she smiled broadly and gave him a big thumbs-up, and that gave him the courage to carry on.
"The second item is that I'm now in another relationship, which - while it didn't begin until my marriage had irretrievably broken down - is still probably going to cause some consternation, if not a hell of a lot of gossip in town."
"Well," Mr Dixon began. "I can see that, coming hot on the heels of a divorce announcement, that might look a little... insensitive, but the company will be behind you, Gunther. You know as well as we do that our legal department is second-to-none in this town, and not for nothing is our PR section the most head-hunted department in the area." He grinned at Nick, who inclined his head in an appreciative nod.
"My new partner is a man," Gunther said softly, squashing his panic as he saw - out of the corner of his eye - Mr Pakefield stiffen in his chair.
The proverbial pin dropped, and he didn't move. Just before the silence got a little too uncomfortable for all concerned, Nick spoke up.
"Should that make a difference? You're still the same bloody brilliant CEO that you were two minutes ago."
"It might, to some." Gunther swallowed another mouthful of coffee, fixing his gaze on the two directors. "For obvious legal reasons, questions about one's sexuality aren't exactly included during the interview process," he added softly, "but if I'd been asked all those years ago I would have told you that I've been bisexual all my life. I just happen to have - so far - been in two major relationships with women, and this time around it's with a man."
His words were calm and measured, but inside he was cold and shivering, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Either they'd accept this, or - combined with the divorce, the fight, and his subsequent arrest - he would be too much of a liability to the company's name. Mr Pakefield was staring into his coffee cup, a muscle in his jaw working, but he said nothing.
"Well." Mr Dixon cleared his throat. "It's a little... unexpected, but DP Corporate is known to be a broadly-inclusive company, so I certainly have no problem with this news."
"Could be used to promote the inclusiveness, in fact," Nick murmured, with another favourable nod to Gunther. "That is, if Gunther's okay with it."
"Well." Mr Pakefield said, gruffly. "Yes, I suppose that's a good point. Well, Gunther, it is a surprise, but as Arthur said, we do not allow such, ah, things to cloud our judgement over suitability for employment. DP has grown to extraordinary heights under your tenure, so I am certainly not planning to throw you out on your ear in the wake of this news."
"I suppose we'll be forced to wait until your annual party to meet this paragon who has swept you off your feet, hm?" Nick teased, and - through his unutterable relief - Gunther shot him an amused look. You sneaky bastard. You've already met him!
"Nick knows me too well, it seems, and he's guessed that I've brought my partner in with me today for some moral support. Natalie, would you see if Valois will come through and be introduced? There's no worry if he'd prefer not to."
"Of course, Mr Goth." Putting down her notebook and pencil, Natalie got to her feet and disappeared through the door to Gunther's private suite.
"Valois hm? French?" Mr Dixon asked.
"Yes, he's French--" Gunther looked up as the door opened and Natalie came back out, followed by Valois, who was as exquisitely-dressed as always. Rising to his feet, Gunther stepped across to meet him and introduce him.
"Gentlemen, this is Valois Fulcanelli, my partner. Valois, these are Geoffrey Pakefield and Arthur Dixon - our directors - and Nick Alto, head of our PR department."
Valois bowed slightly, smiling. "Enchanté," he murmured, before holding out his hand to Mr Pakefield first of all.
"Do. You. Speak. English?" Mr Pakefield asked loudly and slowly, with Valois's hand still in his grip as he shook it firmly and continuously, oblivious to Nick cringing behind him.
"I speak it perfectly well, monsieur."
"Ah. My apologies. Well, it's good to meet you, young man. You take bloody good care of him, what. Damned fine manager, he is."
"I will try my utmost to take bloody good care of him." Valois glanced over at Gunther with a small grin.
"Geoffrey, you're shaking his hand off," Mr Dixon observed, and Valois's hand was finally let go of.
"Yes, well. You said something about a stiff drink?" Mr Pakefield said, looking expectantly at Natalie, who headed to the cabinet and rummaged out some glasses while Mr Dixon took his turn to shake Valois's hand - briefly this time. He leaned toward Gunther and said, in a clearly-audible stage-whisper:
"Bit young for you, isn't he?"
"Should I refrain from making the obvious tacky joke about youthful stamina?" Nick butted in.
"Please do," Gunther gave him a pained look. "My dignity is at stake here."
"Drinks all 'round!" Natalie interrupted brightly, serving up Gunther's best cognac in generous snifters. Valois took his and held the bowl of the glass in his palm, warming it up just a little as the conversation ebbed and flowed onto business matters around him. After about four or five minutes, he raised the glass slightly to the light, swirling it gently for a moment before smiling with a soft murmur of approval. Then, he raised the glass to his face and inhaled the aroma of the liquor before taking a small sip.
"Connoisseur?" Mr Dixon asked, as Valois drank delicately, savouring the alcohol on his tongue.
Swallowing, Valois smiled and nodded. "Wines, books, art, and music, monsieur," he said. "Gunther and I met over a grand piano, didn't we, mon cœur?"
Gunther nodded. "He plays a lot better than I do. I don't know whether to be jealous or not."
"I had the benefit of a tutor from a young age, while you are self-taught. You have the edge on me when it comes to ability, all things considered."
Gunther just smiled at him, lost for a second in the return of his smile, then a soft mental nudge brought him back to the present.
"Well, that was all I had to say this morning, gentlemen" he said. "Unless there is any other business you wish to discuss while we're all here?"
"Hm, no. Nothing crosses my mind." Mr Dixon downed the rest of his cognac and clapped a hand against Valois's arm. "Good to meet you, young man."
"Un plaisir, monsieur."
"Yes, quite." Mr Pakefield finished his drink and nudged Nick, who was eyeing the decanter longingly. "You can ask him where he bought it later. The clients from England will be here in half an hour. Can't have you rolling in, rolling drunk."
"I am never--!"
Nick's protest died as the door closed behind them all and Gunther sagged with relief. Taking her notebook and pencil, Natalie headed into her own office with a murmur of, "I'll hold all your calls," and Valois wrapped his arms around his lover.
"Christ, I thought..." Gunther whimpered, as Valois kissed him.
"I thought old Pakefield was gonna--"
Valois kissed him again, and a moment later Gunther felt the by now familiar comfort of the collar and cuffs encircling his throat and wrists as Valois led him into his private suite and closed the door.
"Bit of a surprise, that," Geoffrey remarked as he walked down the corridor to the elevator.
Arthur nodded. "Absolutely, but I've got no worries about it. Did you see the way he was looking at the lad? Like the sun, moon and stars had just been handed to him. Absolutely smitten, he was. And I'm pretty damned sure that boy called him 'my heart' or somesuch thing in French."
"Hmf. Just as long as he doesn't let it interfere with his work, I'm fine with it."
"Gentlemen, this elevator won't hold forever!" Nick poked his head out of said elevator and waved his free arm to hurry them along.
"You've held a glass for far longer than you're holding that door button, Alto," Arthur observed, as they headed inside and the doors pinged shut behind them.