The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 9

"What are you doing here?" Jack asked as he slipped the key into the back door of The Wooden Rose, where Alaric was sitting, two hours after having forgotten his key inside. At least he had remembered to turn off all the cooking equipment, if not turn off the lights. "It's your day off."

"I was working on some possible new additions to the menu earlier and went outside for a bit... I left my keys in my jacket," Alaric said, hopping to his feet and following Jack inside. The manager and friend of the head-chef shook his head.

"You were just working on the menu, huh? Then why do I hear Paganini?" Jack asked. Alaric cursed himself silently for not having turned his music off. He liked classical music, but he only listened to Paganini when he was in a funk over something. This time, it just happened to be Gwen. Alaric walked into the kitchen and picked up a rag, preparing to clean. "Come on, Alaric. I'm your friend. If you don't tell me what's going on, then I'm going to have to take drastic measures."

"Why would you think that anything would be wrong? Maybe I just wanted to listen to Paganini? Besides, I haven't yelled at my staff nearly as much lately," Alaric snarled. "Isn't that what you wanted?" He squeezed the soapy water out of the rag and hurled it at the counter, furious at himself and at Gwen and at Jack, for asking too many questions.

"Exactly. I'm pretty sure that you would have told me if you were taking up boxing, or at least complained about it, there's no way that you would even consider doing therapy so that's out and you haven't got the smugly superior look of someone who's having sex regularly. So, what's got you in a mood?" Jack asked, rolling up his shirt sleeves and grabbing another rag. He squeezed the water out and, much more gently than Alaric, set about cleaning the counter opposite his friend.

"It's nothing," Alaric insisted. He sighed and leaned his weight on the counter, trying to convince himself that it really was nothing. Still, the image of Gwen haunted his thoughts, angry at him one moment, lost and alone the next.

"Alaric," Jack said softly, pausing in his own cleaning. "Tell me."

"What do you want me to say? Hmm? That I have completely messed everything up and am becoming obsessed with something out of reach? Or would you rather that I just say I've got the flu and need some time to get over it," Alaric snarled, straightening and curling his lip, glaring at Jack.

"If you had the flu, you wouldn't be within a mile of this place," Jack pointed out. "And obsessed? With what? Or who—oh, no. Alaric, please tell me you don't have a, a thing for Gwen." By this point, both men had given up on cleaning the counters, all pretence dropped. They were just friends, trying to sort the world out. Alaric leaned against a counter and looked upwards, tracing patterns in the ceiling with his eyes.

"Is that so terrible? You have, what's her name, Eloise, who worked as an accountant here. Why can't I have a thing for Gwen?" Alaric hissed, pointedly looking away as Jack leaned on the counter opposite.

"She's your student, Alaric," Jack said flatly. "You can't get involved with one of your students."

"Says who? It's not illegal," Alaric grumbled. Jack shook his head.

"No, but it's practically taking advantage of the poor girl. You're her mentor, teaching her to become independent in the world of food. You're teaching her to be great and if what I hear from you is anything close to the truth and not you looking through rose-tinted glasses, then she will be. If you do this, Alaric, you're going to hold her back," Jack said. Alaric said nothing, fully aware of the truth of Jack's words. The fact that he said nothing, though, was telling enough. "Shit. Alaric, I'm telling you, this is a bad idea. You're one of the best chefs in London and you can't afford to be distracted by a girl."

"I tried, Jack," Alaric muttered, his anger vanished, only to be replaced by guilt and pain. "Don't you think I haven't tried to treat her like any of the other students? I've yelled at her more than practically anyone because she was so far behind them, but it doesn't seem to matter how much I try. I can't get her out of my head."

"Can't you just, I don't know, be friends or something? Start dating again. Get back together with Kelsey or whatever the other one's name was, Beth, just don't do this," Jack pleaded. Alaric shrugged. Then he ran his hands through his hair and shook his head.

"I tried that, too," Alaric said quietly. "Somehow, I don't think this is going to be that easy."

"Let me guess," Jack said drily, eyes fixed on his friend's face so that he could see every reaction. "You get shivers when she brushed past you, you want to see her able to deal with her demons more than you want to see her smile, you want to follow her back to her place and be welcomed in rather than shut—damn. Congratulations, Alaric, you've got it bad."

"Shut up, alright? I'm fully aware that I've got a problem when it comes to Gwen," Alaric said. He turned around and grabbed up the cleaning cloth again, desperate for something to cover up his embarrassment. "The question is what do I do about it? I can't very well ignore her, seeing as we have three weeks left of classes. That and with Lauren going on maternity leave in two days, I'm going to need all my people more than ever. Besides, I don't think she's all the happy with me at the moment. Maybe I should just ignore her."

"I don't think that's going to fix anything," Jack said. "If what you say is true, then ignoring her is only going to make the problem worse. And what do you mean she's angry at you?"

Alaric groaned and buried his head in his hands, muttering something through the cleaning cloth. Jack waited. A moment later, the head-chef raised his head and started to explain. He told his friend everything, flicking his eyes to Jack's face every now and again, trying to gauge his reaction. From the solemn look that Jack carried, it was bad. Really bad. "So I shoved my foot in her door, told her that I hadn't asked Major Dalton about anything because it wasn't my place and then I left."

"You left. Just like that?" Jack asked. He glanced at the clock and moved to finish up the last of the cleaning. The kitchen crew would be arriving in a few minutes and he didn't want Alaric's misfortunes to be self-evident through the mess in the kitchens. His chef just stood there, completely oblivious.

"Just like that," Alaric said. "Now what do I do?"

"Wait until tomorrow and then apologise," Jack said, giving an easy shrug of his shoulders. "That's a place to start."

"And then what, tell her that I can't get her out of my head and would she please go on a date with me? Or should I skip that and just tell her I want to sleep with her," Alaric asked. Jack smiled to himself. A temper on his chef was good; it meant things were getting back to normal. Or as normal as things could be with Alaric Bennet.

"I think if you can avoid talking about sex, at least for now, then you're probably heading in the right direction. And yeah, asking her on a date is a good place to start. Just don't take her to a restaurant. You two are far too into food to possibly make it anywhere without breaking down into a conversation about the preparation of the meal. Which is fine, just not for a first date," Jack said. "Now stop standing there and-"

"Hey, chef," Jamie walked in, slinging his jacket on the coat rack by the back door. "I thought it was your night off. Are we changing up the menu?" That was, after all, the only reasonable explanation for Alaric to be there on his day off. He may have been obsessed with the restaurant, but he was aware that he needed a day off.

"No," Alaric said, thinking of the dishes he had put into the large refrigerator. "I was just asking Jack a question about something. Working on figuring out what to do when Lauren leaves."

"Oh, right. I need to remember to get her a card for her baby," Jaime said. "We'll be sure to cook well tonight, chef."

"If you don't, I'm coming after you to flay your hide," Alaric grumbled then turned back to Jack, eyes pleading. Before he could voice his question, the manager shook his head and raised his eyebrows.

"Not a chance, Alaric. This is your day off. Get your ass home, go to the gym, whatever it is that you do on your day off. Just don't you dare stay here," Jack snapped.

"Fine," Alaric grumbled. "See you later, Jack. And don't you dare mess up my kitchen."

"Out. Now," Jack said. Alaric snarled his obedience and grabbed his jacket, this time remembering to make sure that he had his keys. He stalked through the back door as Lauren was coming in, growled what could pass as a greeting and loped off to his car. Following a display of slamming his doors and revving the engine—something which annoyed Jack greatly—Alaric sped off towards his flat, trying to think of something that would occupy his time while he tried not to think of Gwen. He started with a film, moved to examining his fridge to cook and ended up doing exactly as Jack suggested, a gym bag over his shoulders and trainers on his feet.

His gym was only a couple of blocks away and he went faithfully every week on his day off, not because he enjoyed it but because he couldn't think of much else to do with his free time. And when he didn't have his students to worry about, he often went in the mornings, too. The path to the gym was so familiar to him that Alaric could stew and grumble to himself without worrying about losing his way.

Tonight, though, he paused. She was in his head, not walking in front of him, wearing an evening gown and heels, looking rather more upset than she had when he'd seen her earlier. Don't do it, Alaric told himself, but it was already too late. He picked up his pace and jogged up to Gwen's side. "Hey," he said, stepping back to avoid the blow that she aimed at his head. It was half-hearted, meant more as a warning to strangers to stay away than anything. "What are you doing out this way? And, er, dressed like that?"

"I am walking home," Gwen snapped. She growled and sped up, "Or at least, I was trying before I got lost. I have no idea where I am and I am inches away from calling a cab. Either that or I'm going to throw these shoes through a window."

"Um, can I offer you a ride?" Alaric asked warily. Was she angry at him? Frankly, in her current mood, Alaric didn't want to find out. "I only live a block from here and it wouldn't take long."

"That's very kind of you," Gwen hissed, stumbling as she tried to wrestle her shoes into cooperating. So much for thinking them comfortable. Standing around in them was one thing, but walking a couple of miles quite another. "But I think I can manage."

"Come on, Gwen," Alaric said as gently as possible. "It's really not that big of a deal."

"It's—dumb shoe—fine," Gwen said, marching resolutely forwards. "I've dealt with—damn it—worse."

"Somehow, I doubt that. There's not much worse than shoes like that," Alaric said, trying a joke. Maybe that would work, if nothing else. When that got him nothing but a furious look from Gwen, he shrugged and held up his hands in a gesture of peace. "Look, I'm sorry about earlier. I won't ever mention it again, if it bothers you. But can we just let bygones be bygones and act normally. You know, like friends?"

Gwen stopped walking, instead choosing to slump against a wall. "It's partly my fault. I have this thing about people trying to dig around in my life. So, I guess I should also be apologising. I'm not even all that mad about that. It's these stupid shoes, this dress, this whole night that's been driving me crazy."

"Come on," Alaric said, holding out his arm which, to his surprise, Gwen actually took. She must have been in excruciating pain from the shoes to go through that. "My flat's not too far from here. Just two minutes that way." He started walking, going slowly enough that Gwen wouldn't have to hurt herself more but also moving at a decent pace, acting under the assumption that if Gwen thought he was babying her, she would kill him. Accurate, if nothing else.

"How did you end up with a flat down here?" Gwen asked as they reached the building. She waited patiently while Alaric opened the door, her expression betraying nothing as she realised there was no lift. "It's a fairly nice area with lawyers and technology sorts. Not your style, I would have thought."

"Once upon a time," Alaric said, "I dated a lawyer. This was back in my young and impetuous days, when I was just making it as a chef and able to afford a decent flat. I thought that she and I were going to last forever and so I listened to her when she said she wanted to live close to her work. What did it matter? I had a car and the flats are nice if a bit too streamlined for my tastes."

"Let me guess," Gwen said, nodding her thanks as Alaric opened the door for her, letting her into his flat. "She dumped you."

"Actually, it was the other way around," Alaric said. "I wasn't a huge fan of lawyers determined to hang onto me for the notoriety and the sex. Though, the sex was pretty good." Alaric winced, knowing that he had just done exactly what Jack told him not to do. But Gwen had been around men for long periods of time and his statement didn't bother her. She just barked out a single, sarcastic laugh and smiled sardonically.

"It's a nice place," Gwen said. It was, actually. The lines of the flat were all crisp and clean, with dark muted tones on the walls, shiny tile on the floor. The furniture was a mash of styles, some obviously having been provided to the resident—these were all very modern, in bold colours—others much more comfortable and traditional in styling. It was clean but not clinical and there were signs of life, but mostly in the kitchen and bedroom. There were plates in the sink and the bed was not made. Otherwise, it looked to be the residence of a bachelor with a very successful career who would come home to a glass of fifty year old scotch and turn on some really bad jazz, just to say he was cultured.

"It's a place to live," Alaric said, "but I'm not too attached to it."

"Then why don't you move?" Gwen asked, moving towards a leather couch that looked as though it had seen much use as a bed. Alaric gestured for her to sit and she did.

"Want something to drink? Alright," Alaric said. He went into the kitchen for a minute and returned, carrying two bottles of stout rather than the cut glass of scotch. Gwen nodded in approval. "It's a hassle to get out of this lease and besides, the flat that I wanted was recently rented out to a former Army person. Such a pain, really."

"You mean... oh, sorry. Walter rented the flat before I even knew what being clean felt like, so there wasn't much I could do. Though I'm sure he could figure something out," Gwen said, prying off the top of the bottle with a practised twist of her hand.

Alaric gaped at her. To go from absolutely furious with him to demur and talking about moving out of her flat just because he was interested was just bizarre. And totally unlike the Gwen that he knew. "I'm not serious. I was just teasing you."

Gwen snorted, sipping at the stout and Alaric shook his head, settling into the couch next to Gwen. She had been teasing, too. Alright, fine. That was good. She wasn't angry at him any more and she was acting more like the friends they had come to be over the last weeks. They both sipped again at their drinks and Gwen leaned her head back on the couch, slipping her feet out of her shoes and flexing her toes. Alaric watched, fascinated, though he noted that he didn't see any blisters or blood. Even so, shoes like that must have been painful.

"How do you make your own way in the world, completely independent and without other people trying to make something out of you that you're not?" Gwen asked, tapping her fingers gently against the bottle.

"I'm getting the impression that this question isn't purely theoretical," Alaric said, mimicking her pose, head on the back of the couch, legs stretched out. "If it is, then it's a fairly deep question to be having over a beer."

"Yeah," Gwen said. "It's not really all that theoretical."

"And this is the part where you tell me exactly what's going on," Alaric said. Gwen shot him a look and he shrugged. "I've had friends before, Gwen. I've even had friends who were girls. It doesn't mean that you're allowed to cry on my shoulder or anything, but I know when to ask you to explain."

"You're an ass," Gwen said, chuckling. She took a long pull of her stout and settled in deeper into the couch, which caused her dress to slide up her thigh enough to make Alaric want to do things other than sit there and listen. He kept his hands still and forced himself to do nothing but listen.

"I know," he said. "But it works for me."

"Right," she replied. "Fine, if you're going to ask, I may as well tell you. Graham asked me to go to a gala with him."

"What? When did this happen?!" Alaric asked in alarm, fighting the urge to grab Gwen by the shoulders and demand that she return to her senses. He thought that they had an agreement about Graham; he was an insufferable bastard and they didn't need to deal with him any more.

"Sometime after I overheard you on the phone with Major Dalton last night and went to hospital to get my hand bandaged," Gwen said, wincing even as she said the words. "I fully admit that, in hindsight, it was stupid to hit the brick. But I was angry. And I couldn't very well hit you because that would just get me kicked out of this school and I really need this."

"Actually, it's just as likely that I would have hit you back," Alaric said. "Then there would be no hard feelings and we could have avoided this whole stewing anger and yelling bit. Got right down to drinking beer."

"You're such a man," Gwen said, rolling her eyes. "Anyways, this morning, I figured that my hand was really and truly broken and that I should probably do something about it, so I went to hospital where, since there is a notation in my file now thanks to Walter's meddling ways, Graham showed up after receiving a phone call."

"So what, if you get sick or something, Walter knows about it? So he doesn't loose track of his investment?" Alaric scoffed, shaking his head. Gwen tightened her lips, considering.

"I don't think it's anything quite as sinister as that. At least, Walter doesn't think so. But then, he lives in a different world than we do. It doesn't matter either way. Graham showed up, he asked me what happened, I told him I had a row with a brick, he laughed, we talked. It was strange, him being so nice to me. I should have seen it then," Gwen said. She pressed the bottle to her head and silently cursed that it was warm. But cold ale was just tragic and she would much rather drink it than use it as an ice pack.

"Graham can be charming when he wants to be," Alaric growled, the sound rumbling deep in his chest. Gwen turned her head to look at him in surprise. His mouth was etched in a deep frown and his eyebrows were drawn together. That wasn't just anger, that was bitterness.

"I'm sensing that you two have a past?" Gwen probed, her own problems forgotten.

"Yeah," Alaric said. "We can talk about that later. You still haven't finished your story. And don't you dare complain. I told you, I've had friends that are girls before, not to mention girlfriends. I know how tricky you can be."

"Wise-guy," Gwen muttered. She tugged at the neckline of her dress as if it were suddenly restricting. Alaric swallowed, knowing precisely how he could help her with that particular problem. He scolded himself and took a drink of his stout. "Fine. He was nice, charming even, and so I agreed to go to this gala thing. Even though I've never been to an event like that. Frankly, I've never spent that much money on clothes before and that was pennies to pounds to the sort of people that attend those events."

"Ah, yes, the fantastically wealthy," Alaric mused. "Smiles and sparkles and very sharp knives to stab you in the back."

"That about sums it up. I have no idea how to act among these people, so I did the smile and say nothing routine," Gwen said. "It worked, too, until that idiot Graham spoiled everything by saying that I was like Eliza from Pygmalion. You know, the one where Professor Higgins takes a flower seller and turns her into some sort of fantastic lady. He was quite pleased with the comparison-"

"He was to be Professor Higgins?" Alaric asked. Gwen hummed in agreement. "Ouch. That's really harsh. Saying you're incapable of fitting in on your own and pretending that you need someone like him to 'guide' you."

"So, I ate dinner—it was average, there was too much sauce and everything was far to overt for actual quality—and left, but not after yelling at him to leave me alone," Gwen said.

"Where was this? Do I know the chef?" Alaric asked, distracted by the description of the meal. Gwen was tempted to punch Alaric, but her good hand was taken up with her drink and the other was aching.

"St. James. According to one of the very wealthy, the chef is some sort of great admirer or great enemy. I didn't really pay attention," Gwen said. "In any case, that's how I ended up pissed off, determined to walk back to my flat in shoes that look great but are really uncomfortable."

"The St. James... hmm, I'll think about it. But hey, at least you don't have to deal with Graham anymore. And we're back to being friends, you've at least got a decent drink out of the deal," Alaric said. He watched Gwen drink up the last of her stout and rose from the couch, taking both bottles to the kitchen where he threw them away and rifled through his fridge, thinking that, if nothing else, he could fix a sub-par dinner with a decent dessert. "Do you want some crème brulee? I have all the ingredients and that might smooth things over," Alaric called.

"That sounds fine," Gwen said from the doorway, making Alaric jump. He turned to look at her and all but grinned when she reached for one of the aprons he kept on a hook by the door. She tied it over her dress, looking very nice while she did so, and turned to him. "Your kitchen, chef. Tell me what to do."

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