The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 1

"Jamie, if you overcook that duck again, I'm going to give you the sack right now," Alaric Bennet growled, standing behind one of the sous chefs in the kitchen. To his pleasure, the man started to sweat just a bit more, though that could have been from the heat of the grill.

"Yes, Chef," the man answered, using the towel hung in his apron strings to wipe his face. His stringy blonde hair stuck out in curls from under his hat and he looked at his boss nervously. The head chef of The Wooden Rose, a five star restaurant in the centre of London, was a dangerous man to cross. So Jamie took a pair of tongs and turned the duck breast over, giving it another dash of extra virgin olive oil, all the while keeping his boss in the corner of his eye.

Alaric ran a tight kitchen, of that there was no doubt. It probably helped that all of his staff were slightly terrified of him. They could talk with him, sure, maybe even make a joke, but in the back of their minds was that niggling sense of fear. He preferred things that way.

He wasn't an imposing person, at least not in the literal sense. He wasn't overly tall and despite the fact that he was in great shape physically, he wasn't extremely handsome. Attractive, sure, with his sharp, angular features and the dark hair that constantly got in the way of his vision, forcing him to push it back in what people would call a 'stylishly tousled' manner. But his expression was almost always set in a scowl and his eyes were dark and brooding. Most of the women on the restaurant staff figured that if he were to smile every once in a while, he would be much better to look at. And maybe, just maybe, he wouldn't yell at them quite so much.

Despite the shortcomings of his personality, he was a great chef. A fantastic one, even. Which is why The Wooden Rose had snared him. That and the manager was the only one able to keep him in any sort of check.

"Clumsy git!" Alaric snarled as one of the younger kitchen assistants bumped the chef while holding a plate of Pissaladière. The savoury nearly slid off the plate before the assistant was able to save it. Alaric snatched it out of the poor girl's hands and stalked off, muttering to himself. He re-plated the appetizer and set it on the bar of food to go out. Turning, he spotted the assistant by the cutting boards, trying to prove her worth as she cut up celery into even pieces. Alaric nearly went over to grab her by the elbow and give her a lecture on walking out of people's way when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

"I think you should relax a moment," the manager said. He was a man of about forty-five with glasses that constantly slid down his nose, a smile that was easy and sincere and salt-and-pepper hair that had already begun to thin. Fifteen years older than Alaric, the two got along like brothers; each balanced the other out and, when no one else was willing to talk, there they were.

"I should get this kitchen into running order. Everyone seems off their game tonight. I had to remind Cecil twice that he needed to beat the butter before adding the other ingredients for the Gratineed Mussels," Alaric grumbled. But he followed the manager over to the storage area for dry-goods and obligingly leaned against a wall. "How's the house, Jack?"

"People are smiling and enjoying themselves," Jack answered, holding up an apple and checking it over before taking a bite. A little juice dribbled down his chin as he continued, "The Morgans are back and wanted me to thank you on the salmon in lemon sauce. It was well done."

"At least some people appreciate food," Alaric muttered, secretly mollified at the praise of his dish. He watched Jack take another bite of apple before picking one up and doing the same, unawares of how hungry he had been until he started eating.

"How are the preparations for the school coming?" Jack asked. He needed to know, otherwise he wouldn't have asked, because immediately, Alaric was angry and snarling again. The chef began to pace back and forth in front of the manager, forgetting his apple as he waved his arms about.

"I have far too much work to do and you that full well. The final applicants need to be informed of the required materials they need to purchase. I have to finish getting together the menus for each week's presentation. Then there's the ingredients to be ordered. The garlic from Modena hasn't come in yet and the truffles were powdered, not whole! On top of that, I have a restaurant to run, so my kitchens are going to be twice as crowded and not nearly as efficient. Lauren is going to be going on maternity leave just as the classes will be wrapping up and-"

"You know that this is worthwhile, Alaric. You run this school every year and you complain about it all the time, but it always turns out well. Where else can these prospective chefs get a chance to learn and train under someone so talented at an actual restaurant?" Jack said quietly. With a 'hmph,' Alaric slumped against the wall again and finished off his apple.

"You're just saying that to appease me," he snapped.

"No. If I were doing that, then I wouldn't acknowledge that sometimes, you're a right proper ass. Now, I have to get back to the floor and you have, as you so rightly put it, a kitchen to run. But in half-an-hour, I'm coming back here to force you to take a break. You will sit outside and eat the Coq au Vin that table 5 sent back because it was slightly cool," Jack said. He didn't bother waiting around for Alaric to argue but threw his apple core away and straightened his tie, weaving his way through the kitchen and stepping through the doors to the restaurant floor.

This, he thought as he smiled at a couple sipping a glass of red wine, was his element. This was where he belonged, just as much as Alaric belonged in the kitchen. Jack wandered slowly through the restaurant, managing to give off an aura of efficiency and ease simultaneously achieved. He stopped at table fourteen to inquire about the appetizer of stuffed mushrooms and directed the sommelier to table three, where an old man and someone who looked to be his daughter were musing over the wine-list. Then, he spotted someone he knew.

"Mr. Smythe," Jack smiled, putting an extra kip in his step for the man who had found his superb head chef for The Wooden Rose. "How are you?"

"Jack! Things look like they're doing well?" Walter asked, pushing away the menu he had just picked up. The manager noted this and smiled all the wider. It was going to be a good night when Walter Smythe came looking for a good meal. The man was a great boon for business and he always tipped well.

"As ever. Things always pick up just before the school season starts. We never announce it, but somehow people always know that the kitchens are about to get new talent. Once the courses begin, I imagine that things will drop off slightly. The first few weeks are tough on the students," Jack said. Walter laughed, the sound echoing slightly and making the people look over at the wealthy man and the manager.

"Well, Alaric will whip them into shape in no time," Walter said. He looked up at Jack with a suspicious gleam in his eye and leaned forwards. "Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that."

"Oh?" Jack said.

"Do you have one more spot open in your school?"

"A charity case, Walter? Some poor chef stuck in a low-end restaurant but destined to make it big, if only he had the chance and the training?" Jack teased. Walter Smythe's charity cases were famous, especially where his acquaintances were concerned. Nearly everyone owed him a favour or something of the sort and he often used them to get people into better positions. So Jack wasn't terribly surprised that Smythe was asking.

"Actually, a retired Army Lieutenant helped me the other night and I'm returning the favour. She needs a new career and cooking was her dream. So, naturally-"

"You thought of Alaric and The Wooden Rose," Jack answered. He heard a slight raise in volume from the direction of the kitchens and shook his head. If he were to accept this mystery student from Walter, Alaric would not be happy. The only students that ever attended the culinary school went through a tremendous series of tests and trials. The application itself was seventeen pages long. And there were three rounds of applications and interviews. Alaric took only the best and of the three hundred that applied, seven were accepted. A spot at the school was highly sought after. Nothing less than the best was even allowed in Alaric's kitchen. "You know Alaric won't like this," Jack warned.

"Ah, but you can do something about that. She only needs a chance. One of the other sous chefs can give her extra help if need be. Jack, come on. You owe me one," Walter said.

"Fine," Jack sighed, allowing himself a moment of weakness as he let his shoulders slump. An instant later and he was just as straight and smiling as before. "But I'm sending Alaric after you if he come's out swinging."

"I wouldn't expect any less," Walter laughed. "Now tell me what I'm going to have tonight and tell someone to bring me a glass of your best, richest red wine."

Jack went to do as he was told, smiling affectionately as he relayed the orders to each of the necessary people. Then he went back to the kitchens where he found Alaric chewing out the new bus boy.

"If you need to get into the dishwasher, fine But don't go interrupting people while they are cooking! My duck is ruined because of you and you can be sure that the price of those birds will come out of your paycheque. Now-"

"No, it will not," Jack said. He stepped in next to the bus boy and raised his eyebrows at Alaric. "You don't have the right to threaten my employee's salaries, Alaric. You can give your crew the sack, yes, but everything else is mine. And, no, he is not part of your crew. Now get back to work," he told the boy. "It's time for your break."

"I have to start a new set of duck breasts," Alaric grumbled, turning away from his manager and reaching for a pan.

"No. One of your assistants—Jamie, in fact," Jack said, spotting the assistant listening in, "will be starting the ducks. You are going to grab that Coq au Vin and come with me."

Deciding that obeying was better than arguing, Alaric did as he was told and snatched the plate of cold chicken off the counter, picking a fork out of the set of clean dishes and marched after his manager, obviously still fuming about his ducks. Instead of going into the storage area, Jack lead Alaric to the loading docks where he started pacing.

Without a word, Alaric sat, his long legs hanging over the edge of the docks, and started shovelling food into his mouth, knowing that the sooner he was finished, the sooner he could get back to his kitchens. There was only another forty-five minutes before the restaurant closed and another hour or so after that, he could go back to his apartment and sleep off the annoyance that the day had brought.

"Damn it, Alaric, you can't go around terrorising the employees like that," Jack said, putting his hands on his hips as he paced. Eventually, he stopped and sat next to the head chef. "You can terrorise your kitchen crew, sure, but that's because you hired them and they knew full well what they were getting into. You can terrorise your students just the same. But if you start on anyone else, then I'm going to have to put you on probation."

"You can't do that," Alaric retorted, the fork half-way to his mouth. He took a bite and spoke around the food, "You need me."

"Yeah, I do. The Rose is a great restaurant because you are a great chef. But I will find someone else if you continue to do this to me," Jack said. Alaric gave a sort of appeasing sound and put the half-empty plate of food on the raised deck next to him. "There aren't many people that put up with you."

"I know," Alaric said, shrugging. "But I can't help it. I'm a perfectionist and when people can't even follow instructions, it gets on my nerves."

"Gets on your nerves? I'd say that's a bit of an understatement. Seriously, you're going to have to figure out something to keep your temper under control. I don't know, take up boxing. Get laid. But figure something out, soon. Because otherwise, I'm going to make it a condition of your employment that you take anger management classes."

"Seriously? You would make me see a psychologist?"

"Yeah," Jack said. "But only if things go too far. You have until the end of the term for the culinary school to get things sorted out. I don't care how, just do it."

"Fine," Alaric snarled, wanting to throw the plate he had just set down against the ground. He knew that would only prove Jack's point, so instead, he wrapped his fingers around the edge of the loading dock and glared at the building across the way.

It was an old industrial building that hd been bought up a few years back and made into an apartment complex. The flats cost a fair amount, being in the centre of London, but they were nice and Alaric never heard of any trouble that went on there. He had even considered buying a flat there himself, simply because it was conveniently close to The Wooden Rose. He had been talked out of his by his girlfriend-of-the-time, Marcie. She wanted him nearer her law office, so he lived a couple miles from his restaurant. He still regretted it.

"Looks like someone's moving in," Jack said. Alaric blinked and looked at the back of the building. Indeed, there was a van there and a couple of people were moving boxes and small pieces of furniture into the building.

"That'll be the last flat let, then," Alaric said. So much for moving in. "I wonder who it is."

"Someone who wants to be close to the culture, perhaps," was the reply. Alaric shrugged.

He shivered, realising that the cool air, ripe with the possibility of rain, had cooled off the heat of his anger. He grabbed the plate and stood up, brushing off his apron. "I have to get back to the kitchens."

"And I have to get back to the house. Oh, by the way, your friend Walter Smythe is out there. You should probably go and have a word with him."

"What's he having?"

"The mussels. With a red wine." Alaric winced and shook his head.

"He always was an eccentric sort. But he's a good person. Without him, I'd be a far ways away from The Rose. I wonder what sort of charity case he's gotten into, now," the chef said, opening the door to head back to the kitchens. Jack sighed and put his hand on the door, closing it before Alaric could get a chance to walk back inside. He didn't want this being overheard by the kitchens—or the whole restaurant, if he knew how Alaric was going to react.

"About that," Jack said.

"Oh, no. My kitchen staff is full. I don't need anyone else and not even Walter Smythe is going to change my mind about that."

"Your kitchen staff isn't what's going to be changed," Jack said. He leaned against the brick wall of the restaurant and stuffed his hands into his pockets, not meeting the gaze of his chef. "He wants to get someone into the school."

"The slots are full," Alaric said flatly. "You told him that, right?"

"Of course. But we both owe him a great deal and I know that you've had more students than this in the past. So..."

"Tell me you didn't agree," Alaric said, his voice suddenly gone soft. "Tell me you didn't let him foist some sous chef in a two star restaurant in the slums of London onto my selective class."

"I didn't let him foist some sous chef onto you—onto us," Jack said, honestly. He heard Alaric sigh in relief and swallowed before going further. "I let him foist a retired Army Lieutenant onto us."

"What?!" Alaric yelled, the sound echoing in the loading area and making the people across the way pause in the middle of moving a box. "You let him put some completely untrained military man in my cooking class?! Someone who has no idea how a restaurant is run? With no idea of the proper skills? Do you have any idea how insulted the other students will be? They expect to be working with people who understand what cooking is, not someone who thinks that it might be fun to learn."

Alaric's voice carried very well. The people across the way had stopped moving completely and were undoubtedly looking to see who was yelling so much. Jack winced and rubbed his forehead. "You know that Smythe wouldn't have asked if it didn't matter. And I've already said that one of the kitchen assistants will give extra lessons each evening after the kitchens close. They'll get paid overtime, too."

Alaric hissed in displeasure. "I will not let one of my people get caught up in this. No, no. I'll stay behind and do the extra lessons. But don't come blaming me if this Lieutenant looses his nerve and skips out on this. It wouldn't be the first time that one of Walter's charity cases has gone seriously wrong."

"Fine. But Alaric," Jack said, turning the knob on the door and staring his chef straight in the eyes, "if I hear of any abuse, you're going to be out of here faster than you can say 'chef.' Understand?"

"Whatever you say, boss. No, I'll treat this person just the same as I'll treat anyone else who makes a claim in my kitchens." Alaric pushed past Jack and stalked back to the warm kitchens, where the manager imagined his staff was going to feel the brunt of his anger. Sighing, he wished that he hadn't given up smoking and shook his head before returning inside.

Walter hadn't realised how difficult getting Gwen set up for her new career actually was. As a result, he gave Graham the charge of the mission, sent Gwen to get cleaned up and took himself out to dinner at The Wooden Rose. Graham, as usual, wasn't pleased.

He began to organise a flat near the restaurant where Gwen was to work and hoped that when she came back from the showers, she would at least smell a bit more personable. He doubted very much that she would achieve much more than that. So when she returned, wearing an old pair of his sweat-pants and a black t-shirt that made it very apparent she wasn't wearing a bra, he coughed in surprise and immediately turned to his work. Because she cleaned up well. Very well.

Her skin had been dirty and grimy when she arrived, now it was pale and clean. Her hair had been stuck in clumps and the colour of mud on a damp Tuesday. Now, it was a lustrous light brown and was pulled back from her face in a tight bun. Her skinny frame was more apparent, especially now that she was wearing clothes two sizes too big, but that only made the fact that she had lithe muscle attached to her more visible. The only thing that detracted from her looks, simple yet appealing, was her expression.

Gwen retained the a stoic look on her features, but her eyes told the story of someone who had seen far too much. There was sadness in her eyes and also wariness and pain. The black eye that she sported was even more obvious because of it, though her split lip was less swollen. She stood there, completely out of place in the office of Walter Smythe, but looking as though it wasn't unfamiliar. She was an enigma and Graham always liked puzzles.

"I don't think we've been properly introduced," Graham managed to say, after he reminded himself that she had just been picked up off the streets. Staring was impolite. He forced himself to remain calm and cool, scolding himself by thinking that she was nothing more than another pretty face, another charity case that would be his job to mop up when it went wrong. "Graham Ruskin. I am the office manager for Mr. Smythe."

"Gwen Townsend," she answered, her posture straightening slightly as though she were about to salute or give a sharply barked, "sir." Graham looked down at his computer screen, pushing any thoughts about anything other than his immediate assignment far, far away.

"Right. Ms. Townsend. Mr. Smythe would like me to get you set up with flat, preferably near the restaurant where you will be working. You will be given some money to buy furniture and clothing and whatever else you will need. I already have some men out at the chosen flat, getting thing set up. Until the time that you complete your training, you will be given an allowance of £500 per week. A bank account has been set up in your name and you will receive, in the mail, all of the documents that you will need. Do you have any questions?"

Gwen hesitated for a moment before shifting nervously. "Why is he doing this? It's costing him a lot of money and putting you out of your way. I don't..." she trailed off.

If he had expected anything out of her, this charity case that his boss had adopted, it certainly wasn't that. Most of the people he dealt with were more than willing to take Walter's money and start a new life, or take it and relapse into the way things had been. He didn't remember a time that the recipient had questioned why. Graham looked up from his desk and put the reading glasses he was wearing on the computer keyboard. He met Gwen's hesitant, wary gaze and tried his best to give her a reassuring smile. From the way that she seemed to tense up, it didn't work very well.

"Mr. Smythe is a generous man. He believes, wholeheartedly, that since he has been given wealth, he should do something to help those who do not have it. He does not simply give money away, but always searches for someone that he thinks might be worthy of receiving a second chance. Sometimes, it doesn't work out. From what I hear, though, you helped him when it did you no good to do so and when it was obvious that he was just another rich man in the wrong part of town. That must have meant something to him. So, why is he doing this? For you, I think its because he believes you are a good person," Graham said. Gwen blinked, surprised.

Then, reminding himself that this was just another street walker, someone who couldn't live up to the rigours of society, Graham looked down again and picked up his pen to jot something down on a piece of paper. "Just don't prove him wrong."

"Yessir," Gwen said softly, sharply, as though Graham were her commanding officer. She blinked back the tears that came unbidden to her eyes and snarled inwardly. She was a military officer, discharged honourably after being diagnosed with PTSD and two tours in Afghanistan. She was not some weakling who was going to cry at the first good will that she had seen in a while. But, at least, it was nice to know that people weren't all terrible and cruel. Maybe this cooking school and Walter Smythe were going to be good things.

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