The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 17

"I've prepared a pepper and mango salsa with a mint puree and roasted crisps," Gwen said, standing before the "panel" of judges, her posture straight and rigid, her arms behind her back, her stance balanced. She looked every inch the proper soldier except for the fact that her hair was far from meeting military regulations, her clothing was that of a chef and her nose had a smudge of flour on it that no one was willing to point out to her. She looked as though she had finally found a place to fit in. That alone made Walter Smythe smile.

Then, of course, there was the fact that he had been asked to sit in on this competition and judge the food. There were worse ways to spend an afternoon. Graham had complained about the afternoon being wasted the whole drive over and was still looking slightly sulky, though he had perked up at the sight of Gwen. Walter dutifully tasted the appetizer that Gwen had made and closed his eyes in pleasure. Who knew that something so simple could taste so good? It even had a slight bite to it to remind you that it was a salsa you were eating, not your grandmother's bean dip. Walter had tasted four appetizers already and he was thrilled.

"This is great," Walter said, reaching for another mouthful of the food. His hand was slapped away by Jack, who looked at him with raised brows. "What? I want more."

"You have a whole set of main courses and desserts to try," Jack said. "I think you should hold back on the food."

"Don't worry," Gwen said with a smirk, "I made extra. I'll have Alaric put it in a doggy bag for take away."

"You're a good girl," Walter said and waved Gwen away with a flick of his hand. She gave a half-mocking bow and turned, heading back to the kitchens. The other chefs were waiting, some pacing, others standing with folded arms.

"Done?" Alaric asked. He had already tasted Gwen's dip and was in the middle of keeping James and Allison from biting each other's head off. The two chefs were bristling at one another and, while saying nothing, they looked to be close to blows. Gwen nodded and Alaric let his shoulders relax for a second. "Right," he said, his voice carrying through the kitchen. "Enough chit chat. Time to move on to your second course! Any ingredients already used up will not be replenished. You have exactly one hour."

Just as before, Gwen lunged for various ingredients, snatching a salmon steak and some potatoes before the others could. She grabbed lemons, pepper, truffle oil and various other things and began to cook. It never occurred to her to be tired. She didn't think about how long she had been on her feet or that she was competing for a job in what would amount to a very long day. She just cooked. Her concentration was such that she ignored everyone else around her. James muttered to himself while grilling a rack of lamb and Allison was shifting her weight nervously, looking about at what everyone else was doing while cubing chicken. The others cooked with equal or less fervour, just thinking about the next minutes. And Alaric watched it all.

The hour passed quickly for him, consumed as he was with watching his students create. It was what he liked more than anything about cooking. The creation of something wonderful from ingredients that wouldn't amount to anything on their own. The ability to take pieces and make a whole. It was marvellous. He watched others creating food with as much pleasure as he got from doing it himself. Well, nearly. Even watching James, who he didn't care for personally, put together pieces of what looked to be a savoury lamb dish with some sort of kale side dish, was an experience worth enjoying. Gwen, though, was his favourite—and only part of it came from the fact that he just liked watching her.

It took him a while to figure out what she was making, but when he did, he had to fight to keep from laughing. Fish and chips? One of the most simple, common dishes around and here was Gwen, using it to—hopefully—win herself the job. Granted, most fish and chip shops didn't sear the salmon to perfection with hints of saffron and fennel, nor fry the chips in truffle oil and put rosemary on top. Still, despite the trappings, it was a classic dish. And a bold statement.

But wasn't that everything about Gwen? Bold statements, no backing down, no hiding. She wasn't one to tiptoe around a topic just because someone complained. She believed what she believed, said what she thought and meant every word. Behind that was the flash temper and a steel core. Alaric was pleased to be able to recognise her moods because it gave him the satisfaction of claiming he was getting to know her, to break down the barriers around that core. If only she would stop putting them up, things would be great. He had a plan for that, though. One that involved getting her seriously drunk and willing to talk about anything. For that, he would need An Incident and there was only one person he knew that could create An Incident better than anyone else. His father.

She was coming to the party in a week and a half's time. He had asked her hoping for her support in dealing with his family, but Alaric wasn't one to pass up an opportunity when it danced in front of him. He would take her and, knowing his family like he did, things would likely get ugly. If they didn't, so much the better. When they did, he would be ready with the strong liquor and the glasses.

He shook his head to clear away those thoughts. It wasn't manipulation, he told himself as he watched Sarah put a duck breast on a plate. It was simply careful questioning. Considering that Gwen was driving him crazy, keeping him up for half the night and refusing to talk about things, he figured it was worth it. He wanted to know her, every bit. And, more than anything, he wanted to know the person in the photograph she kept in her kitchen drawer. The one with the smile. Alaric was so caught up in his musings that he nearly missed calling time. He muttered a curse to himself—Gwen's problems were proving to be quite the distraction—and barked out, "Time!"

Immediately, everyone stepped away from what they were doing, some looking around in pride, others staring at their dishes as if willing them to get better or be different. James took one look at Gwen's plate and sneered. "Couldn't think of anything more interesting than fish and chips?"

"Everyone likes a good fish and chips," Gwen replied, her voice steady. "Mine is better than most."

"Somehow, I don't think that's going to get you very far in this business," James said, folding his arms. "This is a five star restaurant. Five pound meals aren't served here."

Gwen didn't rise to the bait and merely shrugged. Maybe it was the fact that she had argued with the man in the park earlier or maybe she was finally seeing a way out of her difficulties with her job, but she allowed herself to fully ignore James. He was nothing more than an annoyance and his opinion didn't matter anymore. She looked over to see what he had made and looked with interest at the grilled lamb and a creamed kale slaw, both drizzled with some sort of sauce. James saw her looking and his smirk only deepened.

"Right, our judges are ready and we'll begin. The same order as before, so Thomas, you're up." Alaric held open the door to the kitchens and followed Thomas out, the dish carried steadily in Thomas' hands. Gwen would have watched, but she didn't think her nerves would stand up to it. Sure, she was ignoring James and pleased with the result, but that didn't mean she wasn't worried about her chances. These people were in Alaric's school because they were good. Better than good, they were great chefs. She was pleased to have been able to keep up with them, but that didn't mean she would be able to win in a head-on competition against them. She could hope; her chances weren't great. That didn't mean she wasn't going to fight.

"Enough," Gwen muttered to herself. "You're overthinking things." She looked around for some sign of distraction and settled on Allison. The petit woman was pacing back and forth in front of her workstation, looking at everyone's dishes and frowning. She had created a wonderful, thick chicken and corn chowder spooned out over crisped toast and just the scent was intoxicating. Gwen meandered over.

"This is nerve wracking," Allison said as Gwen leaned against the counter next to her friend. "I thought it would be just like a typical day, cooking and seeing what we could come up with, but this is much worse."

"Your chowder looks great," Gwen said. Allison smiled in return and managed to calm herself down enough to stop pacing. "Is there any extra?"

"I feel like I made enough to feed a small army," Allison gestured to the pot still simmering on the stove. "I thought I would use more of it in plating, but with the toast, I don't think it should be too overwhelming and-"

"I was just hoping I could snag a bowl," Gwen said. Allison grew red and, if possible, even more agitated.

"I don't think... it's just that... perhaps you shouldn't," she stuttered. Gwen had already reached for a spare bowl and spoon and paused, looking at the other woman.

"It is edible, isn't it?" she asked. Allison nodded. "Were you planning on using it for something else? Because if you wanted to save it, I'm fine with that. I mean, I can always see about cooking up a grilled cheese, but this looked so good and it's lunch time and..."

"Fine, go ahead," Allison said, breaking into a smile at Gwen's hopeful look. Gwen grinned in return and served out the last of Allison's chowder. Just like that, the tension in the kitchen seemed to break and everyone, including James, decided that it was a good enough time for lunch. Those who had left over food from their preparations shared it and those who didn't threw together a few small dishes. Thomas returned, looking as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders and Sarah went out.

"So," Gwen said, putting down her now-clean bowl and watching Allison eat the left-over chips she had made. "I was thinking that we should go out sometime."

"What? Like a girl's night?"

"Exactly like that," Gwen said. "Next day off we get, go out and eat at a nice place, go to the cinema or theatre or a symphony or whatever it is that people do on nights off. We would have to stay out until at least one in the morning. It would be fun."

"I had considered getting out of the city on the next free day, but that works just as well. Alright, I'll look around and see what we can do since you're very clear on the options," Allison said sarcastically. Gwen shrugged. "Gosh, it's weird to think that we only have one more day off before the last week begins. I've gotten interviews at a couple of places, but I don't know where I'll end up working. I mean, I'd like to work here, but I don't think the chances of that happening are too high. Don't give me that look," she scolded Gwen. "I know my limitations and I know my skills. I'm a damn good cook, but there are people better. You're one of them. And don't even think about trying to protest, because I won't hear a word of it."

"Then I won't protest. You are a damn good cook, though. That chowder was proof," Gwen said. Allison snorted and shook her head good-naturedly. "I hope that you get a really good position."

"There's a new restaurant opening in the theatre district," Allison said, "and they've put out advertisements for head-chefs. I'm interviewing there and really hoping I get the job. It's meant to be one of those posh little places where everything is modern and makes no sense except to the artists who designed it. But I've seen a couple of sample menus and, should I get the job, I think I can do really well there. I'd finalise the menus, of course, but it would be nice."

"When's the interview?" Gwen asked.

"Two days. Jack's already given me the afternoon to go and interview and I've been promised a really nice reference for my CV from my last job and from Jack. I would have asked Alaric, but since his school is already on my CV, I didn't want to pester him. And he scares me," Allison admitted. Gwen chuckled.

"He's not so scary," she said. "You just have to ignore the fact that he yells a lot."

"I think there's slightly more to it than that, but I'm also not dating him," Allison pointed out. Gwen shrugged, smiling and watched as Sarah returned and James went out. Once he returned, it would be Allison's turn and then her own. She met Alaric's gaze as he held the door for James and offered a secret smile, her eyes narrowing seductively. Alaric looked startled and seemed unsure as to what to do. He ended up simply following James out, leaving Gwen and Allison laughing.

"I have to admit, it is fun being able to tease him," Gwen said. "Though considering how much we work, getting the actual dating bit in is difficult. We haven't had a proper date yet."

"So then, what, you two just talk on your way to and from The Rose and have a quick snog in the store rooms?" Allison said. The way she phrased it made it seem like some sort of illicit romance between school children. Gwen laughed and shook her head.

"No, we talk at my flat—it's closer—and there's no snogging in the store rooms. Jack won't allow it. We just make do with sex. He can be quite creative when he wants to be," Gwen said. Allison spluttered and shook her head fervently.

"Okay, I'm glad you're enjoying the sex, but there are some things about my current boss, teacher, whatever, that I don't need to know," Allison said. Gwen smirked and folded her arms triumphantly. "Still, putting sex aside, you should go out on an actual date. I mean, that is more or less the whole point of dating. You'll burn out otherwise."

"Which is why I suggested a girl's night. To keep me from burning out. And I think he needs a break from me for a day or so," Gwen said. Before Allison could ask, she explained, not wanting to make a big deal out of things. She wouldn't be able to know that by trying to make nothing out of something, she was cementing its importance. "I don't sleep all that well on a good day and he's getting tired of not sleeping the whole night through. Sex aside, that is. Besides, even I, incredibly tolerant though I am, can't spend every waking moment with Alaric. I need a break, too."

Allison pursed her lips together and did her best not to worry, forcing her voice to match Gwen's lighthearted tone, "Don't you think that, considering you've only been together about a week, needing a break from each other already might be indicative of, well, something more?"

Gwen's expression darkened into a scowl, "I don't. But thanks for the thought, doctor. You'd better straighten up. Looks like you're up."

Allison looked as though she were about to say more, but Gwen was right. James had returned and Alaric was gesturing impatiently towards Allison. She looked at Gwen and sighed, picking up her chowder and leaving the kitchens to go present her dish. James stood at his workstation, cleaning lazily and looked rather pleased with himself. Gwen wanted to stand and sulk, but she forced herself to do as James was doing and go clean up her workstation. There was still the dessert course to make and she didn't need to be wasting any time on cleaning. She couldn't very well go after ingredients then, but she could make sure that everything was ready.

"Are you sure your fish and chips is going to pass muster?" James asked, his voice containing far too much innocence to be sincere. "It's probably a little to simple for the taste of the wealthy philanthropist and his snobbish office manager."

"I think you don't know how to please people," Gwen countered. "Simple dishes are always better." James simply raised his eyebrows and turned his attention to his cleaning. Gwen wanted to act as nonchalant as he did, her anxiety nothing more than impatience for the next round to start, but the voice in the back of her mind was telling her to listen. Walter may have been a happy-go-lucky sort of man, easily pleased and content with a dish of fish and chips—gourmet though it was—but Gwen had spent a night trying to fit into the circles that he and Graham walked and, while not exactly failing, hadn't succeeded either. They were used to the best that money could buy and no matter that her meal was a five star version of a classic dish, was it good enough to be considered the best? When placed next to James' delicately grilled lamb and creamed kale or Allison's chicken and corn chowder with cilantro and fresh garlic, would a plate of saffron salmon and truffle oil chips pass muster?

Gwen knew that Alaric had put together this competition for her benefit, so she could prove herself worthy of this job, but there was still an element of doubt in things. What if she wasn't good enough? What if, as she had proved spectacularly in Afghanistan, she was incompetent? Then where would she be? She sighed and threw her cleaning rag in a bin. She knew exactly where she would be; in a crowded and greasy pub cooking burgers and plain versions of fish and chips for people eager for the ale to flow and the next quiz night to begin. She was good, but she wasn't good enough. Not if Walter and Graham and Jack didn't like her dish, not if it was too simple.

She looked over at her dish. Under the heating lamps, the fish and chips were still steaming and looking good. Gwen knew she had done well with that. She had put together flavours that worked well together, cooked everything to perfection and it would be delicious. Simple? Maybe. Like she had told James, though, sometimes simple was better. Even as she was thinking that, Allison returned, a smile on her face. The reception for her chowder must have gone over well, or she was simply relieved at being done with that part of the competition. Gwen picked up her dish—she would stand by it, simple and overdone or not—squared her shoulders and walked out of the kitchen doors. She threw Alaric a smile and considered sauntering, just to annoy James, but refrained.

"You look pleased," Gwen said of Walter, noting his wide smile and the relaxed look that Jack wore. Graham didn't seem to be quite as pleased with the proceedings, but considering that he wasn't checking his phone or looking for a way out, Gwen figured that things were alright. She did notice the angry look he shot between her and Alaric and chose to ignore it. Graham was a grown man; he could very well get over her rejection.

"I get to sit and have food served to me, figuring out which one is best?" Walter said, smiling up at her. "I've had worse days."

"Alright, then," Gwen laughed, setting the meal before the judges. "I'd best tell you what I've got for you."

"It smells great," Jack said. Gwen raised her eyebrows—was he supposed to be commenting like that—and shrugged.

"It should suit," she said. "I've made you an exotic twist on a classic dish. This is a salmon filet pan seared in a saffron and butter sauce with just a hint of red pepper. To pair that off is a helping of chips fried in truffle oil and dusted with salt and rosemary."

"You made fish and chips?" Graham asked. He didn't sound impressed. Gwen did her best not to get annoyed at him, though she couldn't help but shift her weight so her hip was cocked and put her hand on it.

"I thought," she replied in her calmest tone, "that after such fancy fare, you might want something simple, relaxing. I'll confess that it's not quite like what you'll get from the chip shop, but-"

"It's great," Walter said around a mouthful of salmon. "Just what I wanted." He speared a chip with his fork and popped that into his mouth as well, chewing and smiling with his eyes closed.

"I'll admit," Jack said, "that it is nice to have something not quite so... intricate, after all these meals. And you did well; the saffron is a nice touch and the pepper gives it enough kick to bring out the other flavours."

Gwen inclined her head in thanks and straightened back into her relaxed position. She watched as Walter snagged another few chips with his fork before Alaric whisked the plate away, muttering something about there still being dessert. Gwen nodded at the three judges before turning and going back to the kitchen, her heart much lighter. She even enjoyed the way that Alaric's hand rested on her back, leading her with a gentle touch. She wasn't one for being led, but considering the way that his fingers splayed over the small of her back, sending pleasant tingles up her spine, she wasn't going to complain.

"You know the drill," Alaric said. "One hour. Desserts. Same order as before. Chins up, people. You have a job to fight for. Go." His words sparked a sort of frenzy and the kitchens buzzed to life. This was the last leg of the race and everyone knew it. Most of the ingredients had been used for the first two courses, but there were still enough sweet options to be used for dessert. Gwen hesitated over some fresh berries, trying to decide whether she wanted to make a light crepe with a berry compote or something else. Then, Sarah's hand moved some ingredients about and Gwen saw them. A bag of chocolate chips. Spurred on by the taunts that James had thrown about her last dish, Gwen picked them up and saw a jug of milk still full in its cooler.

She knew exactly what she was going to do.

The hour seemed to pass incredibly quickly for all involved in the competition. Feeling the need to out do the others as well as themselves, everyone made their desserts as gourmet and intricate as possible. Apart from Gwen. When the time was called, each was too nervous to even mingle with the others, so they simply stood before their desserts, waiting for the chance to present before the judges. Thomas went out with a vanilla-hazelnut ice cream, Sarah with a custard topped with a crisp, sweet wafer, James with a raspberry white-chocolate mousse and finally Allison went to present her own flambeed pears with a cinnamon sauce. They each returned looking triumphant or relieved. Then, it was Gwen's turn.

She picked up the tray with her dessert on it and marched out the door, ignoring Alaric's look of surprise at her creation. Jack was listening intently to something that Walter had to say while Graham checked his phone, looking miffed. Gwen didn't bother with the small talk, just put her tray down and distributed the dessert between the judges. There was complete silence as each man stared in astonishment at the food before him.

"This is..." Graham said, sounding neither annoyed or miffed, just completely taken aback.

"A cookie," Walter agreed.

"With milk," Jack added.

Gwen nodded. There, on the plate before each judge was a large, still warm chocolate chip cookie, the chocolate slightly melted, the cookie fluffy and inviting. Sitting next to each plate was a tall glass of plain white milk. "Enjoy," Gwen said, smiling.

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