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CHAPTER 45 ~ QUESTION

"Hey there," Gunther said, as he peeked around the door into Mortimer's room. "Busy?"

Mort stretched on his bed and grinned. "Nah. Finished my homework an hour ago. It was French, so Valois helped me."

Closing the door behind him, Gunther sat down beside his son. "Your French grades are really good, so I hear."

"Well that's 'cause I've got a proper French person to help me!" Mortimer giggled. "Nobody else in my class has that."

"Where is Valois, anyway? His car's not outside."

"Oh, I think he drove into town. He said something about getting some more wine for dinner tonight." Mortimer picked up his sketchbook and leafed through it to find a blank page.

Ah. That meant he was in France, then. Gunther hid his half-smile. Ever since Valois had admitted to him that he slipped through time and space to visit his hometown whenever they were out of wine, it had amused Gunther immensely. No wonder their cellar was so well-stocked!

"You like Valois, don't you?" he asked.

"'course I do. He's great." Mortimer dug through his pencil case; a blue furry thing with big googly eyes glued onto it. The eyes rolled wildly as Mort's fingers delved in search of a 2B.

"So do I," Gunther murmured, and his son gave a little snort.

"No you don't. You luuuurve him!" He elbowed his dad, who gave him a rueful grin.

"Yeah, okay. I know, I know. I'm soooo embarrassing."

"Yep!" Having found his pencil, Mort poked his tongue out at Gunther and started sketching.

"Actually," Gunther began, hesitantly, "I've got something to ask you about Valois."

"Mmm?"

Already, Mort was lost in his world of art; lines and shading taking over from the everyday mundane fact of chatting with his dad. Gunther needed his full attention for this.

"Mort, just stop for a sec, yeah?"

Mortimer looked up, his eyebrows drawn together in a thick black caterpillar of a frown. "Is something wrong?" His voice immediately took on that worried tone that Gunther so hated to hear; the relic of his little boy's insecurity.

"Nothing's wrong. I just want to do something important, but I think it's only right that I ask you about it first."

Mortimer put down his pencil and leaned against his dad, the sketchbook still on his lap. "Okay," he whispered.

"You know how much I love Valois..."

"Yeah. You're, like, all mushy and stuff." Mort grinned up at him.

"Guilty as charged. Well, I want to show him how much I love him. More than just a gift can show him."

"Why d'you have to ask me about that first, though?"

Gunther held his breath for a moment. "I want... I want to ask him if he'll marry me," he said softly.

There was a long silence, broken only by Mortimer's quiet little, "...oh." And then, after a minute or two, Mort looked up.

"You're asking me because you think I'll be upset? Because of Mum?"

"Yes." Gunther stroked his son's hair. "I would never do anything to hurt you, and if you're not happy because you think Valois will be taking Mum's place, well... then I won't ask him."

"But then you'll be unhappy." Mortimer frowned.

"I'm sure I'll be fine," Gunther reassured him. "Valois isn't going anywhere. We'd still be together, even if we didn't get married."

"No." Mortimer cuddled even closer, wrapping both arms around his dad's waist. "No, I want you to ask him. He makes you happy and I don't want you to be sad."

"You're absolutely sure? I don't mind waiting—"

"I'm sure." Mort smiled up at him. "I want you to ask him. Oh hey, do I get to be Best Man if you get married?"

Gunther couldn't stop the broad grin that curved his lips as he hugged his son. "You can be whatever you want," he said. "The Best Man has to make a speech at the reception, though. Would you want to do that?"

Mort jumped up off the bed and fistpumped. "Oh yes!"

"Now you've got your poor old dad worried!" Gunther laughed. "The Best Man also has to look after the wedding rings, so you'll need to be very careful."

"I can do that. So, you're going to ask him?"

"If you don't blurt it out to him first." Gunther wagged a teasing finger at his son. "Promise me you'll keep it a secret, yeah? I haven't bought an engagement ring yet, or anything. I want it to be a surprise."

Mortimer grinned broadly. "I'll keep schtum."

"Good afternoon, sir. Can I help you?"

Gunther turned away from the glass-covered display of engagement rings, uncertainty etched on his face. The assistant was tall and elegant, dressed in a sharp pantsuit and coiffed to perfection. She gave him a warm smile, acknowledging his nervousness.

"Um, I'm looking for a ring," he began, somewhat lamely. "An engagement ring."

"Of course, sir. What type of setting were you thinking of? There are the various golds—white, yellow, or rose—and, of course, platinum is always very popular, though it carries a higher price tag."

"Oh, I'm not worried about the price." He smiled at her, starting to feel a bit more relaxed. "Only the answer."

She chuckled, reaching for the small bunch of keys at her waist. Unlocking one of the displays, she took out a beautiful platinum ring set with a solitaire diamond.

"This is our best-selling higher range ring," she said, cradling the elegant black box in her hand to display the jewellery to him. "A slender platinum band, and a one-carat diamond set in round."

Gunther eyed it. It was beautiful, but there was no way it would fit Valois's hand.

"It's, uh, a bit small," he murmured.

"Does the lady prefer larger diamonds?" The assistant closed the box and replaced it, reaching a little way deeper into the display for another ring. "Or possibly another gem altogether?"

"Um..." Gunther clasped his hands behind his back, mainly because he knew he'd start wringing them if he didn't. "I meant hand size. Do you have... do you have anything that would suit a man's hand?"

"Of course, sir." The assistant didn't bat an eyelid, locking the cabinet and moving a few steps to one side, where a collection of larger rings was displayed. "Are you still thinking of this kind of design?"

Gunther followed her, peering into the cabinet that she was now unlocking. His gaze caught on one beautiful ring, and his breath stopped. "That one," he said, with absolute certainty. "That one is so him!"

With a genuine smile, the assistant took out the ring and displayed the box on her hand. "You have a good eye," she murmured. "This happens to be my favourite ring in our entire collection. Eighteen carat white gold with a two carat diamond set in a four-prong round, with ten princess-cut diamonds set into a white gold inlay, and a unique engraved band that really makes it stand out. It's a modern ring that's based on an antique design. I believe the original is in a museum in London."

Gunther stared at it. It was perfect, and he could feel a lump forming in his chest. Would Valois say yes to such a ring?

The assistant was watching him with a keen, yet friendly eye, and he gave her a weak smile.

"I'm afraid an answer of 'yes' isn't covered by our guarantee," she said softly, clearly guessing the reason behind his nervousness. "The answer is always given to the person, not to the diamond."

He nodded, digging into his back pocket to pull out his wallet, feeling oddly safe in showing some insecurity to her. "I know," he murmured. "I hope this person—" he tapped the wallet twice against his chest, "—is worthy of that answer."

"From the light in his eyes when he recognised the perfect ring for the one he loves, I'd say he is." The assistant moved toward the counter. Gunther realised she hadn't even mentioned the price. Not that it mattered; indeed he'd already told her that money was no object. But when she rang up the amount on the register his fingers hesitated just for a second on his credit card before he handed it over.

That's a lot of money to risk on a potential 'no'.

He signed without a murmur, though, tucking his card and wallet safely back into his pocket.

"Would you like to have it in a plain bag, rather than one with the store logo?"

"Oh, could I?" His biggest worry had been paparazzi trailing him to the store. He'd escaped them on the way in, but he couldn't guarantee that he wouldn't be spotted on the way out. He'd parked well out of the way near the library and walked to the jewellery store, but he still had to make it back to the car again.

"Of course. We always keep some in stock for customers who might want that." She slipped the small box into an elegant plain blue bag, then she eyed him thoughtfully. "Hm, you look like you'd shop at Suits You." She bent down behind the counter.

Gunther stared at her. "I buy my work suits from there, yes. Why?"

Emerging again, she dropped the plain blue bag into a much larger Suits You bag, stuffing some tissue paper all around it to pad it out and make it look as if the bag held a suit instead of a tiny jewellery store bag. Then, she smiled at him.

"We're well-versed in elegant subterfuge in here, sir."

He burst out laughing, taking the bag with a broad grin. "Thank you. I appreciate it. Although I still have to get out of the front door safely."

Her only response was to gesture to the door behind the counter.

"The tradesman's entrance?" Gunther was delighted.

"Of course! For our most-recognisable and paparazzi-avoiding customers." She winked at him.

"You're a saint." He glanced at her discreet little name badge—Marsha Dixon—and resolved to write a note of commendation to the store owner. "Thank you!"

Safely home and out of his work clothes, with the ring tucked deep into his jeans pocket, Gunther tried to do everything except pace the house. After Valois didn't arrive home in time to start cooking dinner, Gunther gratefully took over that duty, making an astonishingly successful spaghetti bolognaise and earning himself the supreme compliment of a "Not bad!" from his son.

"Did you buy the ring yet?" Mort queried as he helped Gunther wash up.

"Yes. Got it this afternoon."

"Ooh! Can I see?"

"Careful!" Gunther jerked a wet hand under the plate that Mortimer had almost dropped in his excitement. "Maybe you'll see it on Valois's hand before long, eh?"

Mortimer eyeballed him. "Don't be scared, okay?" was all he said.

"Hm?" Gunther stuck two forks into the draining basket and set to work on scouring the pan.

"That's what you always tell me when I'm worried about something. There's no need to be scared. Things will be what they will be, yeah?"

Gunther stopped and looked at him, then he smiled. "Yeah, they will."

"I think he'll say yes, anyway—"

The sound of Valois's car pulling up outside made them both stare at each other like rabbits in headlights. Then, both realising the hilarity of their own expressions at the same time, they dissolved into mutual giggles, right at the moment Valois walked in carrying two large clinking bags.

"Something smells delicious," he said, watching with a smile the delightful scene of a laughing father and son that greeted him.

He put the bags down on the kitchen table and leaned in to kiss Gunther. "I hope you made enough for me," he murmured, nuzzling gently.

"You think I'd let you starve?" Gunther blinked innocently, then grinned.

"And it actually tastes good!" Mortimer observed, throwing the fork he'd just dried into the cutlery drawer, where it landed with a clatter. "He's getting better at this 'cooking' thing."

"There's a plate keeping warm in the oven," was all Gunther said, watching Valois with a tender smile as his lover bent to retrieve his dinner. To Mortimer's obvious mouthed 'ASK HIM!' Gunther just shook his head and mouthed back 'Not yet'.

Mortimer pulled a face and finished drying the knife he was holding. It, too, landed in the drawer with a clatter, and he looked up at his dad.

"Can I go do some painting?"

"Of course you can. Thanks for the help," Gunther said with a smile. "And the compliment about my cooking skills!"

"I wouldn't call them 'skills' just yet." Mortimer ducked, but couldn't escape the handful of suds that flew into his hair. "Hey!" He giggled, flicking a hand into the bowl and splashing Gunther's shirt. Another blob of suds immediately landed on Mort's nose, making him go cross-eyed, then Gunther laughed, pulling the plug out of the sink before grabbing a towel to dry his hands.

"Go on. Go paint stuff."

"Okay!" Mortimer blew the suds off his nose, giggled again and ran out of the kitchen.

Valois, eating his dinner with obvious pleasure at the table, just watched Mort with an amused frown. "He seems rather excitable tonight," he remarked.

"I told him he could stay at Esther's this weekend." Gunther pulled up a chair and sat at the table opposite him. "So, was he right? Are my so-called cooking skills improving?"

"Well..." Valois eyed the plateful, critically. Gunther's heart began to sink, and then he noticed the wicked gleam in his lover's eyes as he finished with, "I'm not dead yet, so they must be."

"Teasing boyfriends get no dessert." Gunther folded his arms and pouted.

"Not even teasing boyfriends who bring exquisite wine home with them?"

"Well.. maybe."

Valois put down his fork and reached across the table to caress Gunther's cheek. "How about teasing boyfriends who promise to make it up to their beautiful lover all night?" he murmured.

Gunther smiled at that. "Oh, they get forgiven instantly."

Valois chuckled. "I am very glad of it. As to the food, it's delicious, just as it smelled when I walked in," he said.

"I figured I must be getting better." The ring was all-but burning a hole in Gunther's pocket. Now I know how Frodo Baggins felt. "Mortimer got through it all without pulling a single disgusted face."

Valois finished the plateful and ghosted the napkin across his lips. "Mon cur, your cooking was never that bad. Just a little... hm... unadventurous?"

"Kind of like my love life, before I met you." Gunther winked at him, earning himself a grin.

"Indeed. However, dirty dishes cannot wait, so shall we see to those before we see to being adventuresome?"

Curled up on the living room couch fifteen minutes later, with the fire blazing merrily in front of them, Gunther nestled his face into the warmth of Valois's throat and just breathed.

"You seem a little... tense, mon cur," Valois murmured. "Do you need your collar?"

Gunther shook his head. "M'fine," he mumbled, trying to screw up his courage. He told himself that, even if Valois said no, nothing bad would come of it. Only a bit of money lost on some gold and a few diamonds.

Long fingers slipped into his hair, stroking and soothing, and instantly he felt calmer. Okay. Okay, now was a good time. Right now.

"Can I ask you something?" he murmured.

"Of course." Valois's lips brushed over the crown of Gunther's head. "Is something wrong? I have not pried, even though I have sensed unease from you all day today. For several days, in fact. If your worry had increased much more I would have asked you what was wrong. However, I sensed that it was nothing bad. I hope that I was right in this?"

Gunther raised his face and nodded. "You were right. It's nothing bad."

He slipped his hand into his pocket. Right now. C'mon. Just bloody ask!

Slowly, he moved off the couch and onto the floor, earning himself a small, puzzled frown from his lover.

"I thought you didn't want your collar—" Valois began, but Gunther reached for his hand and held it.

"I'm on one knee, not two," he whispered, letting the significance of that sink in. He could barely meet Valois's eyes for a minute, but when he did he was surprised to find them watching him with a strange, slightly-guarded expression. Well, he was down here now. Nothing to do but forge onward.

"I've... I've bound myself to you twice now," he said softly. "Both of those bindings were personal to us, and nobody else knew about them."

"That is the way of the Veil, my darling boy," Valois murmured.

Gunther's fingers wrapped around the ring box, still in his pocket. "I know, but there's something missing." He hitched in a breath. "You're my world, Valois, and I want the world to know that." Here goes nothing...

The ring box was open in his palm and he held it out with a shaky murmur of, "Will you marry me?"

For a terrifying moment there was utter silence. But, before Gunther's heart had the chance to plummet into his shoes, Valois raised a trembling hand slowly to his own lips, his gaze fixed on the ring. A few seconds later, his eyes brimming with tears, he looked at Gunther and whispered, "You... you would promise yourself to me, for the whole world to know?"

"With all that I am. I love you so much, Valois."

The tears spilled over and Valois gave a very undignified and vulnerable wet sniff that went straight to Gunther's heart. With a smile that was tremulous and watery at best, Valois nodded, sniffing again.

"Yes," he croaked. "Yes, I will marry you."

Gunther almost collapsed with relief, momentarily having to rest his forehead against Valois's thigh. Then, raising his head with a smile that he was sure almost beat the one he wore when he first saw his newborn son, he took the ring from the box and gently slipped it onto Valois's hand, where it nestled against the red stone of the other ring he always wore.

"Come here," Valois urged, his voice hoarse with emotion. "For god's sake, get up here so I can hold you."

Gunther clambered up off the floor. Inelegant? Hell yes. He wanted into those waiting arms, and he straddled Valois's lap, clinging as he was clung to.

"Oh, my darling boy," Valois whispered. "You are the gift that my heart never thought it would ever receive. I love you. I love you so much."

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