Three Shades of Ebon
(Thumbnail art by MistressAdaira)
Ch. 1: A Mutual Interview
April 18, 2001
Gwen stared in disbelief as she followed the Cheetah through the corridors, receiving the grand tour of what was to be her new home for the foreseeable future. Fresh out of college with her Bachelor’s degree in personnel management, she hadn’t expected to land a career in her field so quickly, let alone one with so many perks. Thankfully, the albino mouse’s new boss was old friends with her grandmother, and so hers was the only resume taken into consideration.
“And this here is the kitchen,” Dean explained as he stopped at one of the doorways and gave a friendly wave inside. Peeking her head around the corner, Gwen saw a jovial-looking Blue Bear smiling back at her. “That’s Curt, the chef. Nice guy. He’s been here almost as long as I have.”
“And how long is that?” the mouse girl asked as her guide started walking again, continuing her orientation.
“June will make eight years for me,” the Cheetah answered with a smile. “Curtis came on board a few months later, as I recall.”
“Wow.” Gwen remarked, truly impressed. “I was only thirteen then. I take it then that you enjoy working for Mister Von -”
“Frederic,” Dean interrupted, correcting her. “He hates being called Mister. You’ll see that he is very informal once you meet him in person.” Stopping again, he gestured inside. “This is the dining room, where you will eat the majority of your meals along with the rest of the staff. Curtis serves breakfast at eight o’clock, lunch at one, and supper at six. Please try your best to not be more than thirty minutes late to breakfast or lunch; we can’t have you working on an empty stomach.”
A tall, muscular German Shepherd crossed the far side of the room without looking their direction. “Who’s he?” Gwen asked quietly.
“That would be Lars, Frederic’s personal bodyguard and head of the mansion’s security. He is rather stoic, but friendly enough, I suppose,” Dean explained. “Come along, then; there’s much more to see.”
The entire tour took well over an hour as the butler led Gwen around the entire estate, introducing her to her new co-workers and showing her where everything was. It almost felt like a dream; for the next few years, maybe longer, she would call this 34,000 square-foot palace home. Fresh-cooked meals, a fitness center, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a Jacuzzi, a sauna, tennis courts and more, all situated right on the shore of Lake Superior…
“And finally, this is your office,” Dean announced, snapping the mouse from her reverie. “Your suite is attached, complete with your own private full bathroom, through that door. I have already taken the liberty of having Trevor bring up your belongings.”
“What about these other rooms?” Gwen asked as she indicated several other doors along the hallway. “Are they offices, too?”
“Yes,” the Cheetah replied. “The office next to yours belongs to Celyn, Frederic’s attorney. She does not live nearby, but he pays her sufficiently well enough that if he needs her, she will drop everything at a moment’s notice and fly out here. She also has her own private suite, in case she needs to stay the night, but most of the time she lives in her own home doing pro-bono work.”
With a wave of his paw he continued, “Across the hall is Mason’s office; he oversees Frederic’s finances. Every other Tuesday you will submit labor reports to him, and he will make sure that everyone gets paid and that their taxes are taken out accordingly. He will also process payments for any and all invoices and expense reports after you’ve had the chance to review and approve them. The rest of the time, he’s busy doing his duties as FP&A manager for Frederic’s company.”
“Where is he now?” Gwen asked, noticing that the office was dark.
“He is on vacation until Monday,” Dean explained. “Tax season just ended, so he took some time off to go back home and see his family.”
“I see,” she said. “And does he also live in the mansion?”
“No,” the butler explained. “He used to, but now he prefers to rent a small apartment not far from here. He’ll occasionally spend the night in his old room if he has a hard day, but most of the time he leaves after dinner.”
“Why would anyone want to move out of this house?” Gwen asked. “This place is Heaven on Earth.”
“It would be better if you asked him yourself,” the Cheetah remarked with a slight frown. “It is not my place to discuss his business. Though if you need companionship, the rest of the girls are normally up until almost midnight doing whatever it is you girls do. I am certain they will welcome you with open arms.”
“What about that last office?” Gwen asked. “Is it yours?”
Chuckling, Dean shook his head. “No, I stay with the rest of the housekeeping staff. That is the security office, where Lars stays. I doubt he would be much in the way of company, though. He normally goes to bed rather early and wakes up before dawn. Now, I must get back to my duties, and you should get yourself settled in. May I help you with anything further?”
“No, Dean,” the mouse answered with a grateful smile. “You’ve been a tremendous help. Thank you.”
April 23, 2001
Gwen rubbed her eyes wearily as she made her way downstairs to the dining room for breakfast. So far she was really enjoying her new job and new home, and had made friends with a few of the staff members. Fleur, the maintenance woman, and Rosalind, one of the maids, had taken her out that past Saturday to buy things to decorate her suite. She’d even managed to find herself a new yoga partner with Lars. Frederic, her new boss, was funny and sweet, though a tad eccentric. The only one of her new housemates that she’d had any trouble with was Hanna, one of the maids, even though she wasn’t aware of having done anything to spark a conflict. Seeing as how she was now in charge of personnel management, she vowed to herself to set the record straight with the younger squirrel.
As she was thinking this, Gwen spotted Hanna stroll into the dining room from the kitchen, accompanied by an Impala. Both were dressed in running apparel with towels draped over their shoulders, holding a lively conversation. Assuming the unfamiliar male to be Mason, the mouse woman figured he was the reason for the tension between them. Of course, Gwen found this notion to be ridiculous; as the personnel manager for the mansion staff she considered it unprofessional to date within the workplace, especially so soon after starting her new job. If Hanna wished to date the slightly older Impala, she saw no reason to stand in the way as long as their workplace romance did not hinder their job performances.
“Excuse me, Curtis,” she said quietly to the chef as she entered the kitchen to get her breakfast, “what’s the deal with Hanna and that guy? Is that Mason?”
“Hmm?” the Tibetan Blue Bear asked. “Mason? Oh, I forgot you haven’t met him yet. Yeah, that’s him. Those two are running buddies. He doesn’t live far from here, so he always jogs in to work unless it’s raining. Hanna meets him out front, and they run a few miles every day.”
“Is there anything going on between them?” Gwen asked.
Curtis cocked a quizzical eyebrow. “Hanna and Mason? Not that I know of. Why, are you interested in him?”
“Of course not,” the white mouse laughed. “It would be completely unprofessional. But are there any in-house couples I should know about?”
“Do Mason and Celyn count, since they don’t live in the mansion?”
“Sure,” she shrugged. “It may be good to know about, just in case.”
“In that case, no,” the chef said, shaking his head. “But Lars and I hook up once in a while. Same with Fleur and Roz. Nothing serious, though.”
“Then why did you ask about those Celyn and Mason?”
“Because,” the big man grinned, “Trevor has it bad for Celyn. Not that it would ever happen, since he’s way below her standards, but it’s amusing to think about.”
“How so?” Gwen asked, her curiosity piqued to know more about her boss’s attorney.
“She doesn’t put up with any crap,” Curtis said as he leaned over the counter. “Hell, she scares me sometimes.”
Taking her plate, Gwen couldn’t help but smile to herself as she imagined the hare being taken down a peg or two. She didn’t have anything against the limo driver, but she was fairly certain that his bravado and swagger was just a mask for some deep-rooted insecurities. Perhaps a bit of comeuppance would do him some good.
She took a seat at the end of the dining table so that she could get a better look at Mason without him noticing her staring. The Impala had finished his meal by now and was having a relaxed discussion with both Hanna and Fleur. Now that she could see the man a little more closely, Gwen had to admit that he was handsome. He was tall and well-groomed, with the slender grace befitting both a runner and his species. She sensed a quiet confidence coming from him, so very unlike Trevor.
Mason laughed at something Fleur said, shaking his head at the bison woman as they both stood up and took their dishes to the kitchen before parting ways. As soon as the Impala was out of sight, Gwen picked up her breakfast and moved to sit across the table from Hanna.
“Hanna, can I talk with you for a minute?”
The squirrel woman didn’t even bother to look at her, responding with a simple grunt as she took a sip of her coffee.
“I get the impression that somehow or another, you and I started off on the wrong footpaw,” Gwen explained. “I don’t know if I did something to offend you without realizing it or what, but if I did then I’m sorry.”
With a frustrated sigh, Hanna set her mug down and made eye contact with the mouse. “No, you didn’t. I should be the one apologizing to you,” she explained. “Everyone thinks you’re wonderful and they love having you here.”
“Then what’s the problem? Maybe I can help.”
“It’s silly,” the teen grumbled.
With a deep sigh, Hanna set down her mug and leaned forward. “Do you know what I was discussing with Mason and Fleur?”
“No,” Gwen answered honestly. “I was out of earshot. But I was curious.”
“Excuse me?” the mouse asked. “Why on Earth would you three talk about me?”
“Mason saw you when we walked inside,” Hanna explained. “You’re his type of girl, you know, at least physically.”
“Cute, slender, dark hair, white fur… He used to have a fling with one of our former maids, Hillary. She was an arctic fox with similar dark hair.”
“What happened?” Gwen asked, feeling her cheeks warm as she blushed.
“Frederic offered to pay for her education,” the squirrel explained. “But she declined the offer, instead deciding to go to a local community college so that she and Mason could stay together. He felt guilty about her throwing away such a huge opportunity because of him, so he ended things with her.”
“Ouch,” Gwen mumbled.
“Tell me about it,” Hanna agreed. “This all happened before I started here, but Mason was still hurting. He would never admit to it, but we could all see it in his eyes. When I found out that he and I both enjoy a morning run, I asked him to be my running partner and we became friends from there.”
“So, you’ve been giving me the cold shoulder because you’re afraid that I’m going to hurt your friend again?” the mouse concluded, and received a nod in response. “How do you even know he’s my type?”
“Because all three of us saw you staring at him throughout breakfast,” Hanna grinned. “He thinks your glasses and pink eyes are adorable, by the way.”
“What makes you think I would I would date a co-worker? As the personnel manager, it would be completely unprofessional.”
“He’s a great guy. Very sweet, very charming, but also a little intense. If the attraction is mutual, which I think we all know it is, he’ll get you to change your mind. Trust me on this.”
A gentle rap at his doorway caused Mason to glance up from the financial analysis report on his computer screen. Leaning back in his chair, he took a moment to take stock of the mouse woman waiting to be acknowledged.
“Miss Hartley,” he said as a smile formed across his muzzle. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?” He could see a soft tinge of pink stained her cheeks through her white fur and his smile widened.
“Please, just ‘Gwen’ will be fine,” she replied demurely. “I was wondering when you might have the time for us to sit and talk for a bit. You and Celyn are the only members of the staff I haven’t yet had the chance to get to know.”
Mason glanced at his watch. It was 11:33 and almost time for a break. “Meet me in the foyer at noon, and I’ll take you out to lunch. Do you like Italian?”
“Italian sounds good,” she said softly, casting her eyes downward. “Should I bring anything?”
“If you have some type of headscarf or sun hat, I’d suggest you wear it,” he answered. “We’re taking a convertible and the weather’s too nice to have the top up.”
“I thought you jogged to work?”
With a slight grin, he pressed a speed dial button on his desk phone. On the fourth ring, a chipper voice picked up.
“Hey, stud! Has she come to talk to you yet?”
“Say hello to Gwen, Hanna,” he chuckled. “You’re on speaker.”
“Shit!” the squirrel muttered. “You should have warned me. Hi, Gwen! You weren’t supposed to hear that.”
“It’s okay, Hanna,” Gwen said with a grin. “Just watch your language in the house, please.”
“I can’t warn you when you answer the phone like that,” Mason said with a smirk. “You should see about getting a filter for that mouth of yours. Anyway, the reason I’m calling is because Miss Hartley and I are going out to the Pasta Shop for lunch, and I was planning on borrowing your car.”
“I’ve told you: you can use it any time you need it,” the girl said dismissively. “You paid for it, after all.” Gwen quirked an eyebrow, but remained silent.
“It’s still your car,” the Impala insisted. “You haven’t missed a payment yet. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t need it for anything this afternoon.”
“As long as you’re back by five, no problem,” Hanna remarked. “Just bring me back some breadsticks, okay? Curt will kill me if he catches me sneaking around in the kitchen again.”
“Deal,” he said, and hung up. “I’ll see you in thirteen minutes, Gwen.”
“So,” Mason began as he sat down and unfolded his menu. “What did you want to talk about, Gwen?”
“I’m just trying to get to know everyone better,” she answered. “As the mansion’s personnel manager, it’s my responsibility to know each of you as well as I can in order to resolve conflicts.” With a brief nod of his head, she continued. “So, while I was getting the tour, I was told that you went home on vacation; where are you from?”
“Originally?” the Impala mused. “The Outer Banks, but my mother remarried when I was four and we relocated to Pittsburgh. How about you, Miss Hartley?”
His question had clearly caught Gwen by surprise; she obviously wasn’t accustomed to having the interview turned around on her. Clearing her throat, she adjusted the collar on her blouse and answered, “Dover, born and raised. I’d never ever ventured outside of the Mid-Atlantic until I got this job. How about family?”
“Well, my biological father was an Olympic sprinter, so he travelled a lot. As is so often the case, the distance put a strain on their marriage. Our mother was forced to juggle four children on her own while he sought comfort in the arms of his fellow Olympians,” Mason explained. “We have no idea where he is now. Our Mom’s a pharmacologist, and coming up soon on retirement. My Dad - I should mention that he adopted all four of us when he married Mom, and we all think of him as our father - passed away three years ago. He was a great guy; when he met our mother, he was already in his fifties and not looking to begin a family, but he’d always wanted children. The fact that Mom came with four kids of her own was perfect. Garrett, my oldest brother, is a cop, still living in Pittsburgh and checking in on Mom. Wesley, the second oldest, is an astronomer… I haven’t spoken to him in a while, but the last I heard he was in Texas. Jillian, our sister, is the youngest; she’s currently working on her Masters of Education at Rutgers. We have several other relatives, both on Mom and Dad’s sides, all over North America.” He took a sip of water, set his menu aside, and asked, “Have you decided what you’d like to order?”
“I’m torn between either gnocchi with cheese sauce or the Pasta Genovese,” the beautiful mouse answered.
“I’d recommend the Genovese for lunch,” a voice said from over Mason’s shoulder, and he recognized it instantly. “The vegetables make for lighter fare than the gnocchi, so you won’t slip into a food coma when you get back to work.”
“Okay,” Gwen said with a genuine smile as she looked up at the King Charles Spaniel that was serving them. “I’ll take your word for it. And may I have a Sprite to drink, please?”
“Of course,” the canine said, then looked at the Impala. “Welcome back, Mister Ebonshade.”
“Hello, Hermione,” he said warmly as he handed her their menus. “I’ll have the eggplant parmesan, please, and an unsweetened iced tea.
“Coming right up!” Hermione said. “I’ll be right back with your drinks and salads.” Before leaving, the girl leaned forward and whispered “She’s cute!” just loud enough for Gwen to hear, before scampering off to the kitchen.
The mouse woman seemed a little flustered by the Spaniel’s remark, and he noticed that same adorable pink hue adorning her cheeks once more. “Your turn,” he said, resuming their conversation. “Tell me about your family.”
“There isn’t much to tell, really,” she shrugged. “My Dad’s the Clerk of Courts for Kent County. He’s always worked for either the city or county for as long as I can remember. My mom used to work for Westinghouse, but now she’s on disability thanks to a stroke. Only child. Dad’s parents are retired and live in Ocean City, Mom’s mother doesn’t live too far away, in Newark. She used to work for Frederic, and reached out to him when I was about to graduate to look into job opportunities for me.”
Hermione returned just then with their beverages and salads, but didn’t interrupt their conversation. “So that’s how a young mouse from Delaware wound up in Marquette,” she shrugged. “How’d you end up here?”
Mason leaned forward over the table, his expression and tone serious. “After I got my MBA, I landed with Frederic’s company, Mythic Private Schools. He actually reached out to me after seeing my resume. I was the young hotshot, hand-picked by one of the owners, and climbed the ladder pretty quickly. After two years, I was the third-ranking finance officer in the company. Then, Frederic got sick. I don’t know how much you’re aware of since he tries to act like nothing’s wrong, but he’s in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s. So, he retired back to his mansion and lets his business partner, Mister Maddox, run the day-to-day operations. Since Frederic recruited me, he came to me and asked me to join his mansion staff and oversee the finances since he was developing some memory problems. It’s a part-time job, really, I think he just likes to keep the people he cares about close by. Plus, I can still perform my duties as the Future Planning and Acquisitions Manager of Mythic Schools by phone and email. Free room and board was an added perk.”
“So why did you move out?” Gwen asked.
“Long story short, I felt like my privacy had been invaded,” the Impala sighed. “It was all a big misunderstanding, but I still felt betrayed, as though the rest of the staff wouldn’t look at me the same way again. Frederic tried to convince me to stay, but he respected my decision and actually gave me a raise so that I could rent an apartment and not lose out.”
“So you’re a high-ranking officer in a company that runs schools for rich kids, plus your boss is compensating you for the inconvenience of not living in his mansion, and you rent an apartment,” the mouse queried. “Why?”
“It’s my turn to ask you a question,” he grinned. “You can come back to that one later.” He chuckled slightly as she stuck out her lower lip in a playful pout. “Where do you see yourself ten years from now?”
Gwen pursed her lips thoughtfully as she took a moment to contemplate her answer. “Well,” she began, “My family is still on the East Coast, so I’d like to move back that way eventually. I’m also a people person, which is one reason why I went into personnel management, but one day I’d like to run my own party planning business.” She paused for a moment to sip her water. “As for family, I’d like to be in a stable, committed relationship, not necessarily married since that isn’t for everyone, with one or two children.”
“Very nice,” Mason replied. “Well, to answer your earlier question, since it’s only me I don’t see the point in having anything larger than a two-bedroom apartment to minimize my living expenses. Everything left over gets divided evenly between savings, investments, and leisure.”
“That sounds like a pretty smart idea. Once I get settled in, would you mind looking at my expenses and help me come up with a budget?”
“I’d be happy to, Gwen,” the Impala said with a sincere smile. “Next question. Red wine, or white, and why?”
“That’s a difficult question,” she said.
“I’m only 22, and I don’t have much experience with wines.”
Shrugging, he told her, “Then just answer based on what you know and your impressions of each.”
“Okay,” the mouse said, her mind piecing together bits of what she had heard and read, and trying to recall the very few instances she had tasted wine. “I suppose I’d pick red.”
“From what I can remember, white wine has a fruitier, more playful taste. It makes me think of warm afternoons spent hanging out with my girlfriends,” Gwen explained. “Whereas red wine has a bolder, sultrier flavor, which reminds me of romance, desire, and passion. While I appreciate the friends that I have, I know that as we get older and settle down we will gradually drift apart. Meanwhile, romance and finding someone to love and love me in return is something I am still working on. One is the present, the other is the future.”
“That’s… refreshingly insightful,” Mason said with an approving nod. “Well done, Miss Hartley.” With a glance at his watch, he added, “Sadly, it looks like our hour is almost up. We should be heading back to the mansion. I look forward to continuing our conversation soon.”
“May I ask one more question before we go?” She asked.
“Was this supposed to be a date? It definitely felt like one.”
With a slight grin, Mason replied, “Think of it as a mutual interview.”
“For what, exactly?”
“To help us determine if I should ask you out on a date, and if you should accept the invitation,” the Impala said with a charming grin.
“Oh? And how did I do?” Despite her negative views on dating within the workplace, Gwen found herself wanting him to ask her out again.
“I’ll be in touch soon to set up a second interview.”
May 10, 2013
Gwen wrung her paws anxiously, impatiently rocking back and forth as she sat waiting on the examination table. While it had only been three days since her last appointment, to her it seemed like three years and she was both eager and terrified to hear the results. She and Mason had been trying for nearly two years to have cubs without success and she was beginning to worry. Even though he assured her that he would love her forever, no matter what, a small part of her felt that she would be unworthy of that love if she could not give him children.
She jumped slightly when the door opened and Doctor Lorington stepped into the room. “Good morning, Mrs. Ebonshade,” the Civet woman announced. “How are we feeling today?”
“I’m a little nervous,” she replied. “I thought the last time would have fixed the problem. Please tell me you have good news.”
“I’m sorry, no,” Marcelle said softly as she sat down on her stool and pulled up the patient records on her computer. Pivoting the monitor so that Gwen could see, she explained, “This is your transvaginal ultrasound from last year. You can see the fibroids on your ovaries here, here, and here.” She indicated a few white masses on the screen with her pen, then switched to the next image. “And here is the image after removing them.” She changed the image again. “Now this is your ultrasound from Monday. As you can see, the fibroids have returned and are just as large as before.”
Gwen felt her heart sink like a stone as she looked at the monitor. “What does this mean?” she asked, fighting back the tears welling up behind her bright pink eyes. “Will I be able to have children?”
“Honestly? It’s difficult to say,” the doctor said as she stood up and walked over to comfort Gwen. “The fibroids shouldn’t have grown back that large so quickly. We can try to remove them again, but the odds are good that they will just grow back. The good news is that they are benign, so they won’t pose a health risk to you except for some discomfort as they continue growing.”
“And the bad news?” the mouse woman sniffled.
“The bad news is that they’ll likely continue to disrupt your menstrual cycle,” Marcelle explained, leaning over her patient and giving her a comforting hug. “And even if you and your husband did manage to conceive, the risk of a miscarriage would be pretty high. I’m sorry.”
“What do you suggest?” Gwen asked as she rested her head against the Civet woman’s side.
“Well, since the last myomectomy was unsuccessful there is no way to be certain that the second one would be any different,” Marcelle explained. “We can try again, if you’d like, but honestly I feel it would be a waste of your time and money, and it would give you false hope. I suggest that we harvest your eggs and collect a sample of your husband’s sperm and try surrogacy. Then, we go back inside and remove your ovaries and uterus.”
“I… I need some time to think about this, and talk it over with Mason,” the mouse cried.
“I understand,” the doctor said. “I’m sorry. Take all the time you need.”
As she walked out to her car, Gwen’s thoughts and emotions were a jumbled mess. All her life she’d wanted children, and now the reality that she may never become pregnant was bearing down on her. Even worse than that, but Mason was also excited about the idea of them having kids. She wasn’t sure how to break the news to him; when they’d first met, she had no idea that such selfless and unconditional love was possible.
Not that she thought Mason would leave her or become unfaithful. Quite the opposite, in fact. He would nurture and comfort her and assure her that everything will be okay as long as they have each other. He was an amazing man who deserved anything his heart desired, and she couldn’t provide one of life’s simplest joys. Unsure of how she would break the terrible news, the mouse woman opened the driver’s door to her Acura and sat down, resting the back of her head on the headrest.
Then she closed her glistening pink eyes and cried.