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CHAPTER 44 ~ REALITY

The sound of distant traffic was what woke Gunther from a deep, restful sleep. Before he even opened his eyes he knew he was back in the real world, because the Veil had no traffic. In fact, it had no sound, save the soft emptiness of falling snow.

"Good morning, mon cur," Valois murmured, close to his ear. "Did you sleep well?"

"Like the proverbial log." Gunther nestled closer. He could smell the familiar incense scent of Valois's skin, but it didn't pervade the air around him like it did in Valois's main home. That meant—

He opened his eyes. "I guessed right," he said, as he beheld the soothing walls of his own bedroom. "I figured you'd bring us here."

"I did none of it. It was all the doing of the Veil. It asked you where you wanted to be, and it brought you to that place. You sought comfort and security, and it knew this was the place for it."

"I feel comforted and secure in your home, too."

"But Mortimer is not there." Valois kissed him. "This is the place where all your comforts are, not all-but-one. It is half past six in the morning, my darling one. Will you be going to work today? If so, then I must kick you out of your bed and into the shower."

With a grin, Gunther stretched like a cat and settled back against the mattress briefly. "Yeah, I guess I should. I'm surprised I haven't had fifty panicked phone calls from Natalie, actually."

"You have. Your phone is just on silent." Valois nodded toward the nightstand, where the blue notification light on Gunther's phone was blinking.

"Back to reality." Gunther heaved a sigh as he sat up and swiped a thumb across the screen. There were only two missed calls, and Natalie hadn't left any voicemails, so he deleted the calls. The one text that she'd sent simply said: I told the Directors that you were too busy shagging your man to come in today. Just kidding :p Call me when ur back!

He chuckled, hitting the dial key as he watched Valois smile sleepily up at him. Natalie answered within three rings:

"Just tell me if your arse is too sore to sit through a teleconference today and I'll re-schedule it."

He blinked. "Good morning to you, too, Nat. My arse is just fine, thank you very much, so leave the telecon right where it is. I may be in a little late, but I'll definitely be in."

"Thank god for that. I was fending off that guy from Sul-Sul magazine yesterday. About the photoshoot you promised them?"

"Oh crap! I forgot all about that. Uh, wait until I get in before you set up anything with him. I need to talk to Valois first."

He looked down at his lover, who just smiled and murmured, "It's fine. Tell her to arrange it."

"Okay, bossman. I'll see you in a couple of hours!"

Gunther swiped to end the call, and Valois frowned. "You didn't tell her."

"Probably not a good idea to let her know you can read all my thoughts, love. Let her think we discussed it." Gunther bent down to kiss him. "You're sure you're okay with a photoshoot? I thought it would be the best way to keep the paparazzi off our backs. I'll make sure it's not too personal; just some nice posed pictures of us together."

"I'm perfectly fine with it, mon cur." Valois caressed his cheek. "And I am not constantly in your head. Only when I sense that you are upset and need comfort. Now, get showered and I'll prepare breakfast for us both."

"Well don't you look happier than I've ever seen you before!"

Gunther gave Natalie a big grin. "I guess that's your way of saying I'm usually a miserable old git who needs to smile more."

"Nope." She handed him the coffee that had clearly been sitting and waiting for him. "Just that you look like you proposed and he said yes. And if you have proposed and he said yes, just letting you know I need at least three weeks' advance warning to source a suitable outfit for the wedding. Y'know, just sayin'..."

"Are you probing, or pushing?" He took the coffee with a grin and sipped it. Ahh, perfect.

"I'm both. Well, did you? It's not like you to go completely incommunicado like that."

"No, I didn't. We just took ourselves off somewhere special for the day."

"Oh, poo! I was looking forward to being your bridesmaid or something." Natalie flopped in her chair. "Are you going to, though?"

He just winked at her before heading into his office, leaving behind a seal-slapping secretary who yelled, "Just let me know the colour scheme in advance, okay? Three weeks' notice!"

With his email dealt with and his second cup of coffee gently steaming in his hands, Gunther sat back in his chair, relaxing into the scent of caffeine and the familiar routine of work. A smile curved his lips at the thought of Natalie's earlier excitement and subsequent disappointment. He hadn't even given marriage a thought, not so soon after his disastrous one with Cornelia. Besides, the divorce proceedings for that were barely underway, and hadn't that been a guilty struggle in and of itself?

He had been forced to file, eventually, on grounds of unreasonable behaviour. Sitting in Albert Swain's office and detailing all of the arguments, the sleeping apart, and all of the other myriad unpleasant things Cornelia had put him through had been an exercise in humiliation and despair. Mr Swain had, as always, been completely professional and sympathetic. Having been Gunther's lawyer for many a year, he'd also become a friend, but that made it no easier to sit in front of him and confess to what had happened in his private life over the past few years.

So now the proceedings were underway. Mr Swain had warned him it could take up to six months to process. With Cornelia being regarded by the law as non compos mentis it was up to her lawyer to argue her case, and he was after a fair sum of money from Gunther's estate to pay for Cornelia's lifelong care.

"Let her have it," Valois had told him. "I have more riches than I know what to do with. She could clean you out for millions and you would not suffer one iota for lack of money."

So, Gunther had instructed Mr Swain to err on the side of a generous settlement that would brook no contest. A wise decision, Mr Swain had informed him, not only in itself but also for the sake of his public image. That he would settle so generously onto a woman who had treated both him and his son badly would only raise him even further in Sunset Valley's esteem.

But, despite the fact that he wasn't yet legally free to re-marry, that wasn't to say he couldn't propose right now...

Would Valois even say yes? Would marriage even mean anything to him? After all, they'd both just bound themselves to each other in two very important ways; wouldn't marriage just be a bit of metal and a piece of paper to bind them together in yet another way; that of the law? Would Valois want that? The thought of him rejecting it made Gunther feel a bit sick, so he tucked the idea away into the back of his mind, finished his coffee, and returned to his work.

At half past one, Natalie came in with his usual lunch, placing the steaming bag of hot panini carefully on the desk and settling a cup of his favourite takeout coffee beside it. He grinned up at her as he finished his call and put down the phone.

"Take a breather," he said, as he opened the bag. "Want a bit?"

"Oh, yes please, if you can spare it." She tugged one of the visitors' chairs closer and plunked herself down in it. "I forgot to bring in my salad today, and I don't fancy the choice between vending machine crud and the canteen's stuff."

Tearing off a bit of the paper bag, he folded it over, rested a third of the panini on it and handed it over to her.

"Thanks." She bit into it. "Mmm, this always smells so good when I get it for you," she mumbled through the mouthful. "Dunno why I don't get one for myself every day."

He chuckled, idly opening his browser as he took a bite of the remaining panini. "How are things at home?" he asked.

"Over and done with." She pulled out a bit of roasted bell pepper and chomped it. "I've filed for divorce. Had enough."

"Good for you. Is he contesting?"

"Nope, thank god. I can't afford to fight it if he does." She grimaced.

"You could, with a raise, y'know." He shot her an amused look. "You haven't poked me for more money yet this year."

"You've been distracted! Well okay then. I'd like a raise, please, boss."

"Done. I'll talk it through with payroll and you'll see it in next month's salary."

She blinked. "Well... it wasn't that easy last time!"

"Last time I had a shitload of my own home life problems to deal with," he reminded her.

"True." She regarded him carefully for a moment, then shifted a bit closer. "Can I tell you something?"

"Of course you can. Problems?"

"Not really, no. I went to see my mum the other day, and she said I needed to—"

"Needed to what?"

She pointed at his computer screen and grinned. He blinked, then turned to see what he honestly hadn't even realised he was browsing for.

"You're going to ask him, aren't you?" she squealed. "Oh my god, you're actually going to ask him! Eeeee!"

He blushed, closing the browser window rather belatedly. "I didn't even realise I was—" he began, but she'd jumped out of her chair and was hugging him. Confused, he hugged her back, then looked up at her as she stood over him. "I... I don't know," he began.

"What? Why don't you know?" She plopped herself back down in her chair again, all smiles as she picked up the now-cooling remains of her lunch.

"I don't know if it'll mean anything to him. He's a witch, after all."

"Hey, bossman, my mum is a witch, and I wasn't born out of wedlock, I'll have you know!"

"I... I don't know if he'd say yes, though." Gunther's brows drew together in a worried frown.

"Are you kidding me?! He loves you to bits! Of course he'd say yes! He'd be a bloody idiot if he said no, and I'd give him a ruddy good slap if he ever hurt you by doing that. Hmf!"

He grinned at that. "He'd have damned good reason to call you the little lioness if you did that."

"Damn skippy he would." She nodded, then bit into her panini viciously. She chewed for a moment, swallowed, then her face softened. "You two are so perfect for each other," she said softly. "I know I'm not exactly a worldly, aged old fart or anything, but I've never seen a couple so in love as you and Valois are. It's like the Universe made you for each other. Don't be scared. Just ask him."

He gave her a weak smile in return. "We'll see," was all he could say, and she rolled her eyes and just grinned at him.

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