The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 15

"For sheee's a jolly goood feellooooooooww, which nobody can deny!" Lauren smiled at the people around her who were singing wildly off-key and doing their best to make everyone cringe. She patted her round stomach and shook her head at her well-meaning co-workers.

"That's really sweet of you," she said once the song had finished, mostly to prevent them from starting another. Jaime and Tom were already well into the bottle of champagne that had been passed around and it looked as though Sarah was going to succumb as well. The only person besides Lauren who didn't have a glass was Gwen, who stood with one hip leaning against the countertop, a smile on her face. "Thanks again for the pram. Michael and I were going to go out and get one this weekend."

"Well, now you don't have to," Bob said enthusiastically. Alaric raised his eyebrows at Lauren and she laughed. They would all be sorry to see her go, Alaric knew, but it was nice to see that she would be happy in her new life. He had told her that if she wanted a job after a while, she would be welcome to come back. Lauren had smiled and patted her belly gently before nodding and going in to the party.

The Rose had been closed for an hour now and everyone was still chatting happily, eating the cake that Jack had ordered and making it fairly clear that they weren't going to clear out for a while. Gwen was the only one who seemed inclined to leave, something about the celebration hitting a sour note in her. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that she was missing her own family, or perhaps it was the looks that James kept sending her way. She thought, though, that it was more to do with the knowledge that the last time she had sung that song, the subject of her attentions had been dead less than a week later.

"Hey," Jack said, coming up next to Gwen and ignoring the glare Alaric threw his way. "Are you alright? You seem sort of out of it."

"I'm just tired. And I'm not half-way drunk, like everyone else," Gwen said, showing off her glass of mineral water. Jack smiled knowingly and sipped at his own drink without feeling self-conscious, a feat few could pull off.

"You don't drink?" he asked. Gwen shrugged and shook her head, putting her water on the counter and picking up her plate of half-eaten cake. She poked at it unenthusiastically and kept her gaze focused on it when answering.

"My father was a drunk," Gwen said. "And when I tried to turn to alcohol to fix my own problems, things got worse. I figured it was safer to just not bother."

"You are far wiser than most," Jack said. Gwen smiled in thanks at the praise and speared a bite of cake with her fork. "Which is why I wonder if you'd really considered what you're doing when you accepted Alaric's offer."

"Of going with him to see his parents?" Gwen asked, drawing her brows together. She shrugged nonchalantly. "I've dealt with worse things than disapproving fathers. I think I can handle it. Besides, he seems to genuinely not want to go. I might as well try and support him."

"That's very gallant of you," Jack replied, realisation starting to form a picture in his mind. "But I was talking about The Rose." Gwen looked at him in confusion. He widened his eyes as the picture took shape. She didn't know. She was genuinely in the dark about what Alaric wanted to do. Maybe he had talked to her at one point, but she had obviously forgotten or never registered what he wanted. "You don't... know?"

"Know what? Is Alaric getting promoted? I wouldn't think that would be possible, given that he's already head of the kitchens," Gwen said. She took another bite of cake and Jack's stomach fell to the floor. He took Gwen's elbow and steered her gently away from the other people. They were speaking quietly enough that the likelihood of them being overheard was fairly slim. Still, Jack didn't want to take a chance.

"I thought Alaric had discussed this with you," Jack said. "About the job."

Gwen scowled, "Oh, right. He thinks that I won't have any problems getting a job after this school ends. I think otherwise. I don't really want to end up working at some Chinese place on the West End."

"Gwen, you don't understand. He wants to hire you here. To take Lauren's job, be her replacement," Jack said. His hand was still gripping Gwen's elbow or he wouldn't have noticed the way that every muscle in her body went stiff without her changing a single expression on her face. When the wave of cold seemed to flow off of her, Jack withdrew his hand and fought the urge to step backwards. Gwen wasn't going to do anything, he assured himself. Why, then, did he have the sudden need to get very far away from her?

"I knew I was forgetting something important," Gwen said, her voice like ice though her expression was exactly the same. Jack took a cautious step backwards, knowing full well that his own expression was one of anxiety. Alaric came over just then, holding a bottle of beer and looking suspiciously between Gwen and Jack. He threw an accusing look at Jack and put his arm protectively around Gwen's shoulder, as if that would be enough to dispel any animosity. This time, Gwen stiffened visibly and Alaric flinched, as if he'd been struck.

"Are you alright?" he asked Gwen, his anger directed quite plainly at Jack. Jack wanted to raise his hands and proclaim that he hadn't done anything, but he was doing his best not to run from Gwen.

"You bloody idiot," Gwen hissed, rounding on Alaric. There was a lull in the conversation the others were holding and Gwen frowned. She didn't want to create a scene, not in front of Alaric's people, not in front of people she had to work with. And the look that Jack was giving her reminded her too much of the look that some of the psychiatrists had given her after the incident. Alaric was looking at her as though he had been shot—she knew the look well—and her hand was tightening on the fork she was holding, the broken one twitching as she restrained from decking Alaric.

"Gwen?" Alaric asked, hesitantly putting his hand on her shoulder. "Are you feeling okay?"

She should have answered no, should have said she was feeling ill, could he please take her home, but she didn't. Instead, with the eyes of everyone in the kitchen on her, she made a visible effort to relax and smiled. "I'm fine," she said, putting down the plate of cake and picking up her water instead. As she sipped at the bubbling liquid, those watching couldn't help but shudder. Behind the natural-looking smile were the eyes of a wolf about to kill.

Alaric let the matter drop, putting Gwen's sudden mood change down to being tired after a long day. She had, he remembered belatedly, only gotten four hours of sleep the night before. That on top of working with Allison, being in a hot kitchen for the greater potion of the day and trying to learn the new summer menu would be enough to make anyone tired. Maybe he should sleep at his own flat tonight, let her get some genuine rest. Having convinced himself of that, he returned his attention to the party and to Lauren. Gwen simply waited until everyone's attention was diverted and slipped away.

Only Jack saw her go.

An hour later, Alaric was one of three people left, cleaning the counters and disposing of paper cake plates. He was annoyed because Gwen had vanished and because she hadn't told him she was leaving. He would give her some slack, he determined. She was new to this whole relationship thing. She would—they both would—need to get used to doing something for two people rather than just one. Still, he would have figured that Gwen would have said something.

"Jaime, go home," Jack ordered, taking the rubbish bag from the sous chef. "You look dead on your feet."

"Right, boss," Jaime said, gladly relinquishing the bag and grabbing his jacket from the hook by the door. "See you tomorrow." Jack waited until the door clicked into place and turned to watch Alaric furiously clean a spot on the stove that had been there for a year, simply worn in by time. "You should go home, too."

"What I should do is go find Gwen, make sure that she's alright," Alaric said. "I knew she looked ill."

"I don't think that was what was bothering her," Jack said, clearing the last of the plates into the bag. "She was more angry than ill."

"How would you know that?" Alaric seethed, throwing his rag down in disgust. "Because she'll talk to you rather than me?"

Jack recoiled, staring at Alaric in shock. "You can't seriously be jealous of me," he said in disbelief. "Alaric, don't be daft. Gwen—I don't think of her that way and I know she doesn't think of me that way. I wanted to make sure that she knew what she was doing getting into this job, nothing more."

Alaric's shoulders relaxed slightly and he let the original irritation take the place of jealousy. "Yeah, well, she does. She can handle it. You're the one that-"

"She didn't know anything about it!" Jack shouted. Alaric looked up at his friend in astonishment. Jack never shouted. Even when he was being particularly idiotic and causing mayhem in the kitchens, Jack never shouted at him. The only time Alaric had even heard Jack raise his voice was when things were too loud for him to be heard clearly. Alaric's initial shock over Jack's shouting gave way to bemusement as he comprehended the words.

"Of course she did," Alaric said. "She agreed to it last night."

Jack simply sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "You should go and talk with her," he said in a defeated voice. "I'll finish clearing up here."

Alaric didn't argue; he grabbed his jacket and slipped it on, making sure he had his keys in his pocket. "She agreed to it, Jack. This will work out for the best. You'll see," he said. Then, with a determined spring in his stride, Alaric left. Jack looked despondently at the bag of rubbish in his hands.

"Why do I get the feeling he is trying to prove that to himself?" he asked. The bag remained silent.

When Alaric rang Gwen's buzzer, she was just getting out of the shower, her hair tied up nicely in a towel, a dressing gown wrapped snugly around her. If there was one thing that would help assuage the frustrations that came with dealing with men, a good cup of tea was it. A long hot shower worked almost as well. She heard the buzzer and knew exactly who it was. For a minute, she considered not answering. She was more the furious with him and he could do with a bit of discipline. That being said, she didn't want to ruin her relationship with Alaric before it really began. Shutting him out might do just that.

Gwen let him up, opening the door just as he finished climbing the stairs. He looked tired, haggard and annoyed. As he saw her, some of the tension melted away. She tried very hard not to feel flattered by that. She wasn't shutting him out but she was still angry. He greeted her with a kiss, slipping his arms around her waist and pulling her close. "You left without saying anything," he said as she pulled away to close the door. "I thought you were looking a bit peaky earlier but you should have said something. No one would have minded that you had to go." He put his hand to her forehead, "Are you feeling better?"

"I'm not sick," Gwen snapped, pulling away from his touch forcefully. She stalked into the kitchen and looked for something to do that would keep her from pummelling him. Alaric followed, watching as she put on the kettle and rifled through the fridge. "I'm pissed."

"Was it James?" he asked, growling at the thought of that man hurling insults at her. Gwen straightened and looked at him, her lip curled in disdain, a container of custard in her hands. Alaric waited for a response then realised that the look, the one that radiated barely controlled rage, was his answer. Except that it was directed at him. "Gwen, what's wrong?" he demanded. "I can't do anything if you won't talk to me!"

"Oh, like you talk to me?" she snarled, throwing the custard to the counter and flinging open a drawer to get a knife to open it. "Like you tell me that I'm going to be Lauren's replacement? Or maybe it's just easier for you to assume that I'll be fine with it and that you can go ahead and arrange my life for me. That is what you're doing after all, isn't it?" Gwen stabbed the custard container viciously, depositing the knife on the counter when the container was full of holes enough to be poured into a bowl. Alaric took a step backwards.

"You said that you wanted to do it," he said in a small voice. Jack had been right; she didn't know. He thought that she would have remembered the conversation—if you could call it that when she was dropping from exhaustion and he had only asked one question—but he was wrong. "You agreed."

"When was this?" Gwen demanded, keeping her back turned to him as she worked on preparing the custard. She snatched a nectarine from the fruit bowl and began chopping it into chunks, practically throwing the pit away into the trash.

"Last night," Alaric said, the sinking feeling in his stomach growing. "After we were talking about our families."

"Oh, you mean last night when I was tired enough to say anything and not remember it in the morning?" Gwen said, her voice scathing. She finished with the nectarine and turned towards Alaric. Her eyes were not angry, as he'd expected. They were hurt, distrustful, as though he'd betrayed her. "I told you that there was something I was forgetting this morning," she accused. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I didn't know that you didn't remember!" Alaric said, doing his best not to see the hurt in her eyes. It wasn't his fault. He couldn't have known that was what she was referring to. Why was she so angry about the job in the first place? He was trying to help her!

"And you didn't think that something so crucial to my life as a job might have been the 'important thing' I was asking about? Is my life something that you can just arrange for your own pleasure? Should I completely fix my schedule to suit you? Or would you like something else from me?"

"I was trying to help you," Alaric growled, giving in to the temper that he had been trying to hold back. Why didn't she understand? "I was trying to give you a decent shot at having a career as a chef. I thought that was what you wanted, after all. You were attending my school to learn how to be a chef so you could get off the streets, isn't that right?"

"Yes," Gwen said. "I want to be a chef. I want to be off the streets, making my own money rather than depending on Walter Smythe to give me funds. I want to forge a career for myself. I don't need you doing it for me. I can fight my own battles, Alaric. I've been doing it for years."

"Yes, and see where it got you!" Alaric yelled. Gwen didn't flinch or recoil at his volume, instead straightening her shoulders and staring him down. He wouldn't realise until later that she was preparing for battle. This was not a fight she would lose. "Damn it, Gwen, I'm trying to give you a chance here. You don't have enough experience in the world of food to make it very far. You need a job like this on your CV if you're going to get anywhere."

"I may need a job," Gwen said, her words more forceful than loud. "But I don't need you to hand it to me. I can earn it for myself. I can, despite what you may think, have a life without depending on other people to create it for me. I've functioned for years without you, Alaric. You said it yourself, I'm a good cook. I can get a job, create a career, on my own."

"Obviously, you can't," Alaric shouted. "You needed Walter Smythe to pick you up out of your own misery and the despondency of the streets to give you this chance. You're not arguing with him about this. Yet you seem to find fault with the fact that I'm trying to do the same thing. Is it because I'm not rich? Or does it have to do with the fact that I'm dating you? Or maybe it's just because I'm your boss."

Gwen bared her teeth at Alaric, her eyes sparkling with malice. "You just can't get over the fact that I was homeless, can you? It's just one more failure to hang over my head. Yeah, alright, so I needed Walter to give me a hand and get me started, but I earned my way into your good graces without his help. He wasn't trying to hand me a life. He was just giving me a chance to earn it. You, on the other hand, seem to think I'm incapable of doing anything without help. James is causing problems? Here, let me deal with it. You're going to need a job after classes end? I can fix that for you. Alaric, you're not giving me a chance to prove myself!"

He opened his mouth to retort, to say that was exactly what he was doing, but he knew it wasn't true. He wanted to make Gwen's life easier and to help her become a great chef. He knew that she was capable of being great and didn't see the need for her to prove it. She did, though. She needed to prove it to herself as well as to the world. Just because he saw that she was great didn't mean she saw it or Jack saw it. It just meant that he saw her potential. He couldn't show her without her doing something. He was, in a word, wrong.

Alaric took a deep breath as he tried to shove away the last vestiges of his anger. He leaned against the table and put his arms down, obviously giving up. "Yeah," he murmured. "You're right." Gwen faltered; she had been prepared to fire another retort at him. She was warm with her anger running through her veins and she wanted to fight, to force him to see reason. Here he was, though, backing down. Conceding the fight. What sort of soldier would do something like that? Gwen pulled back, turning off the heat under the kettle. Alaric wasn't a soldier. He wasn't someone who refused to admit defeat even in the face of being wrong.

"I'm sorry," Gwen said softly. "I... I know you were just trying to help. It's just that's not helpful to me."

"I know. I wanted to fix things for you," Alaric answered, coming up behind her and snaking his arms around her waist. He rested his head on the towel wrapped around her hair. "Sorry," he said, ducking his head to kiss the corner of her jaw. "Am I forgiven?"

"Yes," Gwen sighed. She relaxed into his hold and leaned her head on his shoulder. "You'd better tell Jack to start organising interviews for the job, then. I'll prepare my CV and-"

"I have a better idea," Alaric said. "This way, you can earn your way into the job. No trickery, no being soft on you. Just plain, raw talent."

"Encouraging," Gwen said with a sarcastic snort. She poured out the tea and picked up the bowl of custard, digging in a drawer to grab two spoons. Alaric had just eaten cake at Lauren's party but he didn't refuse. It was a peace offering more than a meal (and who was he to turn down custard with fruit?). Halfway through the custard and tea, Gwen began to yawn.

"You should get some sleep," Alaric said, taking that as his cue to start the washing up. Gwen protested and rose to help. "Stop," Alaric grumbled, shoving her back as gently as he could. "I've been something of an inconsiderate prick tonight, so the least I can do is get the washing up sorted out. Besides, you've been on your feet since what, six, six thirty?"

"Something like that," Gwen muttered. Alaric raised his eyebrows expectantly and Gwen muttered something under her breath. "Fine, fine," she repeated. "I'll go to bed. I don't have any pyjamas, but I think I have some old sweats that might fit you."

"I'll just head back to my flat," Alaric said. Gwen frowned and, in an uncharacteristic motion, put her hands on her hips, accentuating her scowl. Alaric smirked. "You can't seriously have energy for that."

"Well, perhaps not," Gwen said, "but that isn't all that beds are good for."

"Come on, Gwen," Alaric said, finishing the washing and turning to face her. He leaned back against the counters and crossed his arms; he wasn't going to give in and there was little she could do to make him. "You're tired, we've just had a row, maybe we should sleep separately tonight. I haven't got a change of clothes with me anyways, or a toothbrush. It's not like we'll have to wait ages to see one another. Just the...what are you doing?"

"Showing you what you're missing," Gwen said in her best imitation of a coquette. It wasn't very good and Alaric would have laughed if he hadn't been engrossed in what she was doing. It started with her undoing the towel that held her hair. The brown locks fell to her shoulder in an unmannerly rush, tangled together and still slightly damp. It was a very interesting look, Alaric mused silently, sort of the fresh-out-of-shower look (which, he supposed, was reality). Then she stretched, her body straining against the now far-too-thin fabric of the dressing gown. Alaric shifted his weight. When Gwen started undoing the ties around her waist, turning her back and looking at him over her shoulder, he was done for. He had pounced before she could even get the dressing gown all the way off.

"I thought you didn't have the energy for this," Alaric said, kissing as much flesh as he could get, using his teeth and tongue as much as his lips. Gwen arched beneath him and simply purred, tangling her fingers in his hair.

"Ah, but I'm not doing the work right now, am I?" she said. Alaric had to give her that; he was the one picking her up and carrying her to the bedroom, kissing her while she slowly and carefully divested him of his clothing. "Just go slowly," Gwen murmured when Alaric disentangled himself to throw his trousers on the floor and dim the lights.

"I think," he said, nipping at the soft skin of her breast, "I can manage that."

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