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CHAPTER 63 ~ MY HUSBAND AND I
"Ladies and gentlemen!"
*tink!* *tink!* *tink!*
Gunther looked up as Natalie got to her feet and tapped a fork against an empty champagne glass. She looked drop-dead gorgeous, having changed into her second outfit of the day—a long red velvet dress—and Gunther chuckled, since the elegance of her attire was in complete contrast to her usual boisterous demeanour.
"Could I have your attention please, ladies and gentlemen!" she hollered.
The general chatter typical of all wedding receptions faded. The meal had long been finished and the guests were enjoying their post-prandial champagne, but now all eyes were on Natalie as she stood beside Gunther, beaming out over the assemblage of work colleagues and luminaries of Sunset Valley.
"We've reached that moment in the proceedings," she said, "when nervous people at the top table fumble with bits of paper and do their best to embarrass the newlyweds with terrible tales about their mis-spent youth."
Chuckles filled the marquee, and Valois looked over at Gunther with a grin. Seated the other side of Gunther, Mortimer was doing pretty much what Natalie had just said: nervously glancing over a well-worn bit of paper and mouthing something to himself.
"We're going to break with tradition a little bit, though," Natalie continued. "As Honorary Father of the Non-Existent Bride, because Gunther refused to wear a wedding dress—"
"—not through lack of persistence on your part!" Gunther interjected, sending a ripple of laughter around the tent and earning himself a poked-out tongue from Natalie.
"I told him I'd pay good money to see that, I'll admit," she said with an impish grin, "but he refused point blank. Bloody spoilsport!"
More laughter, and Mort—distracted from his piece of paper— joined in.
"Anyway, as Honorary Father of the Non-Existent Bride I'd like to invite the Best Man to stand up first. A round of applause for Mortimer, if you please, ladies and gentlemen!"
His first ever big speech, Gunther thought, turning an attentive and loving gaze onto his son. As Mort glanced nervously at him, Gunther gave him a broad and encouraging smile, and that seemed to do the trick. Mort smiled back and got to his feet, leaving his little bit of paper on the table in case he needed to refer to it.
"I did a bit of research online," he began, "because I had no idea what I was supposed to say. I'd already asked Dad if I could be his Best Man, but then I realised there was a lot more to it than just looking after the rings."
Beneath the table, Valois reached for Gunther's hand as they both watched Mort, standing so tall and young and handsome, looking earnestly out over the crowd of family and friends.
"Most of the websites I looked at said I was supposed to talk about the groom and how I know him, that I'm supposed to mention the bride and say something lovely about her, and then throw in a few embarrassing stories that'll get a laugh. But, like Natalie said, this wedding's a bit different and we're breaking with tradition. For one thing, we have more than one groom, and the bride's sort of, well... my Dad."
Gunther laughed along with everyone else, squeezing Valois's hand as Mort gave a big grin, clearly happy that his first little joke had gone down well.
"Although," Mort continued, "I'm pretty glad Natalie's persuasion didn't work. There's only so much a teenager can cope with, and Dad in a dress goes a bit beyond that for me."
"You're not the only one!" Gunther called above the laughter, as Mort giggled and Natalie snorted inelegantly.
"So anyway, I'll keep this short, because I'm pretty sure Natalie has a lot more to say than I have, and we all want to get home before sunrise tomorrow..."
The perfectly-timed pause, alongside Natalie's faux-outraged jaw drop, left the marquee rocking with laughter.
"He's a natural at this," Valois whispered to Gunther, his eyes bright with mirth.
"You all know about my dad, so I'm going to talk about the groom who's a bit less familiar to everyone than the other groom, and of course that's Valois," Mortimer continued.
"Valois came into my life about two years ago, and when I say that he now feels like another father to me... I really mean it. So much so that I'm proud to refer to him as 'my stepdad' when I'm speaking to other people. And when I'm speaking directly to Valois himself"—here, Mort looked at Valois and his voice softened—"I'm proud to call him Papa."
Gunther felt Valois's hand involuntarily tremble, just for a moment. His own gaze was so blurred that he almost missed the way that Valois's eyes glistened, damp with the tears that he was clearly holding back at hearing himself be called that for the first time in his long and lonely life. Gunther squeezed Valois's hand, stroking the pad of his thumb over the smooth skin there as Mortimer returned Valois's tremulous smile, turned back to his audience, and continued talking.
"I see just how much he loves my dad, when I walk around a corner and catch a glimpse of them snuggled up on the sofa and watching telly, and I see how happy and content my dad is right there in Valois's arms. Dad's been through a lot in the last few years, as some of you know, but I'm really glad to know that Valois has him safe now."
There was a general low murmur of appreciation at that heartfelt little sentiment, and Gunther had to raise a finger to his eyes to wipe away a tear. The little speech must have taken Mort a lot of worrying and chewed pencils to write, but to Gunther it was utterly perfect.
"And that's pretty much all I had to say, ladies and gentlemen." Mort gave a little shrug. "I'd like to propose a toast. Please pick up your glasses."
Valois let go of Gunther's hand as everyone reached for a glass and waited for Mort to continue.
"There are several people who can't be here with us today: my grandparents and Valois's Mum and Dad," Mort said softly. "So my toast is... to absent friends."
"Absent friends," Gunther murmured, drinking the toast alongside everyone else, his heart a little sore, but proud of his son's tact and sensitivity. Both sets of the grooms' parents were long gone, but still in hearts and minds, and although Mort didn't know just how long ago Valois's parents had died, he had checked with Gunther first, so he could make sure that toast was the right one to make and how he should word it.
Gunther pecked a little kiss to Valois's cheek as Mortimer sat back down again and glanced over at them, his expression a funny mix of relief, pure happiness, and did I do it all right?
"I'm so proud of you," Gunther murmured, just loud enough for Mort to hear as everyone finished applauding and sat down. "Thank you."
And then Natalie got to her feet with a wicked little smirk.
"Right. Now it's my turn to make you squirm!"
Gunther clapped a hand to his forehead. "That's what I was afraid of!" he groaned, as more laughter filled the tent.
"First of all," Natalie continued, "I would like to thank you all for coming here today to celebrate the union of these two handsome rascals beside me. Don't they both look gorgeous? If one of them had got cold feet, I swear I'd have married the other one myself, and I don't care how inappropriate that is!"
"Mon Dieu!" Now it was Valois's turn to facepalm, laughing as he did so.
Giggling, Natalie carried on. "So, as Honorary Father of the Non-Existent Bride, my job is not only to thank everyone for coming, but also to talk about my Non-Existent Daughter, who in this case is Gunther Who Is Not In A Dress, Damn It."
More laughter, which only increased as Valois remarked, quite off-handedly and deadpan, "I shall do my utmost to ensure that—if he ever gives in to that urge—you get to see the photographs, ma chère."
"Just don't give her the bloody negatives!" Gunther protested, and for a few minutes nobody could continue. Mortimer was giggling so much that he was almost crying, and Natalie was bent double with laughter.
The uproar finally died down, but it was a few moments longer before Natalie could carry on.
"He's never going to live this one down, and that's a promise," she said, then deliberately straightened her face. "Okay, serious now."
Gunther snorted, and she blew a loud raspberry at him. "I'm not passing up the chance to make you squirm for a few minutes, so shut it, you!"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, with a commendably straight face, though he was biting the inside of his cheek.
"Thank you." She gave a theatrical little sniff, then turned to the assembled guests and winked. "As I was saying, I'm going to get a bit more serious now. I first started working for Gunther almost six years ago, and I can honestly say that I would never want to work for anyone else. He is not only my boss—and a bloody fantastic CEO, as many of you are aware—but he's also become a good friend. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that he's my best friend."
Gunther could feel his face heating up, and he fiddled with the stem of a rose on the table in front of him as Natalie continued.
"Some people might think that's not entirely appropriate for an employer/secretary relationship, but I think having a great personal friendship only improves the working relationship. I know I've got an ear to hear my problems and a shoulder to cry on if I really need one, and Gunther knows he has the same in me. I've got his back, and I know for a fact that he's got my back, too."
She turned to Valois and addressed him directly. "And, Valois, by extension, that means I've got your back, too, now. I've never seen Gunther so relaxed and so happy as he has been since he met you. You have quite literally taken years of stress away from him. I work with him all day, and I can see the difference you've made to his life. For that, and for other things that you've done for me, personally, I'm honoured to call you my friend, too."
Valois inclined his head and murmured, "Et moi aussi, ma chère."
Natalie gave him a broad smile before she picked up her glass and raised it.
"Ladies and gentlemen, to Gunther and Valois!"
The company rose and drank the toast, as Valois leaned in and kissed Gunther. One finger gently caressed behind Gunther's ear as Valois whispered, "Did you want me to go first?"
Gunther nodded, feeling just a little bit too emotional to be able to compose himself for a while, although he suspected that whatever Valois was going to say would only make him want to cry even more.
As their guests sat down, Valois rose from his chair. With one hand resting gently on Gunther's shoulder, he looked out over the marquee. It was a relatively small gathering, mostly comprising Gunther's friends and work associates, but Elsanine and Arcturus had slipped in while Natalie was making her speech, and they stood quietly—almost invisible—at the back of the marquee. Gunther spotted them and looked up at Valois, whose face was lit with happiness at the sight of them.
"Mesdames et Messieurs," Valois began, "I promise that I, too, shall keep my words brief. I am honoured to be in your company, and even more honoured to be welcomed so warmly by all of you. But, even more than this, I am simply the most blessed creature on this earth right now. I love and am loved by this beautiful heart beside me, and I have been gathered into the arms of a family that—although small—is all I have ever wanted in my life. And, by extension, I have also been gathered into a wider circle of friends who are akin to family. For that, I thank each and every one of you."
Sincere applause greeted those words, and Gunther had to wipe away another tear. Damn it, he was going to be a mess by the time it was his turn to get up!
"Natalie, ma chère," Valois continued. "You are the lioness protecting those whom you care for, and so we have a small gift for you, to thank you for all you have done for us."
Picking up a small box from the table in front of him, he walked over to Natalie, kissing her on both cheeks as he gave her the gift. Gunther watched as she opened it, smiling at her little gasp of delight.
"Your petite lionne," she murmured as she gazed at the white gold necklace with its delicate pendant of a lioness head. "Thank you so much. It's perfect!"
"Et Mortimer!" Valois turned to Mort, who shot him a surprised look.
"You also cannot be missed, for all you have done to make this day so perfect. I appreciated your help with everything, and so this gift is especially from me." He paused, and then added in a softer, slightly shaky voice, "From your papa."
He gave Mortimer a large white envelope, and Gunther leaned forward to watch his son open it, having no idea what was inside. In fact, although he'd known about the gift for Natalie, he'd had no idea that Valois had also planned a gift for Mortimer.
Curiosity writ large on his face, Mort carefully opened the envelope and pulled out from it a thin sheaf of papers encased in a white folder. As he opened the folder, his eyes widened and his jaw dropped. "Oh my god!"
A murmur went around the marquee, and eventually Geoffrey Landgraab called, "Come on, Mort! We're dying to know!"
Mortimer looked up at Valois, his eyes damp with tears. "This is real? I mean... really real?"
"It is really real, my dear boy," Valois said. "And, if you do not tell our guests what it is, I fear they may burst."
Mort gave a slightly hysterical giggle. "It's... it's a scholarship to an art school in Paris! And... and open flight tickets for whenever I'm ready to go! Oh my god, I can't believe it!"
"Not just for you," Valois murmured, pulling out a second sheet of paper from behind the tickets.
"Esther!" Mort flapped the paper around as he looked wildly about the marquee to where Esther sat with her dad. "Esther! You get to go, too!"
He dropped the papers and shot up out of his chair, wrapping both arms around Valois in a big hug as cheers and applause filled the marquee.
That did it. Gunther turned to Natalie, who took one look at him and grabbed for her purse. Digging inside, she handed him a tissue, and he quickly dabbed at his eyes, giving her a watery smile.
"And now," Valois said as Mort sat back down, "a toast from me. I believe it is traditional for the groom to propose a toast to the bridesmaids, and so I give you our beloved friend: Natalie."
For once, Natalie was quiet, her cheeks flushed with pleasure as everyone stood to drink the toast. Gunther couldn't help himself, bending to peck a kiss to her cheek as he sat back down.
"What're you back on your arse for, mister?" she protested, covering her emotion with humour, as usual. "Up on your feet again. We've all had a go, now it's your turn!"
Laughing, Gunther rose to his feet as everyone else sat down. He hadn't composed a speech or anything, accustomed as he was to winging it through many a presentation at work. But, for a moment, no words would come as he looked out over the assembled guests.
"As you can see," he began with a wry smile, "I'm something of an emotional wreck, thanks to these three wonderful people up here with me. And here I thought it would be Natalie who was in tears throughout the day."
"Nah. I only stuffed my purse full of tissues because I knew you'd need 'em." Natalie poked him, raising a laugh.
"I might have known. Well, ladies and gentlemen, my dear family and friends..." He turned a loving look onto Valois. "My husband and I—"
He got no further because a huge cheer drowned out his words. Valois took his hand and kissed the back of it, and Gunther's throat tightened with emotion.
As the noise died down, he turned back to his friends and colleagues, with Valois still holding his hand.
"My husband and I want to thank you all for coming today and making the day even more special than it already was. For once, I'm afraid, I am completely lost for any more words, so that's all I have: a sincere thank you, from the bottom of our hearts."
He sank back into his seat as applause rang out yet again. So filled with happiness that he was almost overwhelmed, he leaned against Valois and closed his eyes for a moment. The noise around them faded to a murmur, and he heard Valois quite clearly in his head:
~ My blessed, darling boy. I am yours as you are mine. Peaceful and calm now. I have you safe in this perfect moment. ~
He opened his eyes and looked up at Valois with a little smile and nod. "It is a perfect moment," he whispered.
After the speeches, the cake-cutting was a much quieter affair, and everyone decamped from their seats as tables were moved around to create a small dance floor. The first dance was, as ever, a slow one begun by the newlyweds. And, as Valois led him into a gentle sway, holding him close, Gunther leaned against his husband, drinking his fill of the love that surrounded him.
The second slow dance was joined by the other couples in the room, and after that the music brightened to something more upbeat. Gunther and Valois circulated among their guests, sitting at each table to personally thank everyone and chat.
At some point as the evening waned into night and the party moved out into the summer warmth of the country club grounds—which were lit by twinkling lights and punctuated by tables laden with champagne, canapés, and other nibbles—Gunther felt a gentle nudge against his elbow. He turned and saw Valois smiling at him.
"What?" Gunther asked, and in reply, Valois nodded across to two people standing a little way apart from the general crowd, beneath a blossoming tree.
Following his gaze, Gunther saw Natalie chatting with Esther's father, Ted Jacobson. They were both leaning close to each other in intense and animated conversation, and their body language clearly betrayed their unconscious attraction to each other. The light from the flickering candle on a nearby table illuminated Ted's rapt gaze, which was fixed on Natalie's face as she gesticulated wildly, clearly caught up in recounting some hilarious story or other.
Gunther looked back at Valois with a raised eyebrow and a smile. "Y'know, I heartily approve. Reckon I'll get to be bridesmaid for that one?"
Valois rolled his eyes and laughed. "I'm not sure which will happen first: that wedding, or that one."
He nodded in a different direction, and as Gunther looked, his heart gave a little tug. Mort and Esther were snuggled together on a comfy garden bench. Esther was leaning against Mort, her head on his shoulder, and he was cuddling her as she read the precious pieces of paper that held the key to their dreams. Mort's bowtie had long been discarded and his face was buried in Esther's hair as he nuzzled her cheek, and Esther's shoes had been kicked off under the bench, her feet tucked up beneath her. It was such a perfect little tableau of young love and hope that Gunther sighed and gave a contented nod. His little boy was slowly moving out of his safe hands and into another pair of hands that would keep him equally safe and loved.
"I can't believe you did that for them," Gunther whispered. "God, Valois, this truly is the happiest moment of my life. I love you so so fucking much."