The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 19

"Do I really have to wear the suit?" Alaric asked, tugging uncomfortably at the collar at his throat. Gwen rolled her eyes and stepped in to undo the first two buttons, letting her hands linger on his shoulders. "We're just driving out today. The party isn't until tomorrow and I doubt very much anyone will care whether or not I show up in jeans or a suit. Except for me. I care."

The time since Gwen's revelation on the streets, Maman and Tiger at her side, had passed in what seemed like an instant. She had come to terms with her feelings for Alaric and then made certain that she did not reveal the intensity of her care by getting into an argument with him almost the instant she had returned from her run. He had stopped by her flat to coax her into having breakfast with him at a restaurant he had just discovered and found her away. After checking with Allison—in bed with the beginnings of a headache from drinking too much and staying out too late—and trying Gwen's cell phone, he had begun to panic. She had arrived at her flat forty minutes later, out of breath and dirty. Alaric had panicked.

Since then, Gwen had found it becoming increasingly easier to acknowledge that she was in love with Alaric and make sure that he didn't know and she didn't say. Though, as she stepped back to admire her work, watching him shift his weight in discomfort while wearing a very well-tailored suit, she acknowledged it would be a challenge. "The whole point of you going to this retirement party is to appease your mother and impress your father. Therefore, you show up in a suit. Trust me, successful people—chefs included—wear suits. I'm wearing a dress, so you can't complain," Gwen said, brushing a hand over her own clothes.

Alaric raised his eyebrows and pulled his eyes over her figure very slowly and carefully, making sure that not an inch was left unexamined. Gwen, to his mild disappointment, did not blush. "No," Alaric said after a minute, his voice low and bordering on a hungry growl, "I suppose I can't."

Gwen was wearing a dress that hugged the curves she had and emphasised the muscle that made up the rest of her person. It was a startling shade of deep purple and, with her hair brushing her shoulders and her legs covered in silk stockings that Alaric had enjoyed helping her into—with a few distractions—she looked like a very successful and frankly beautiful woman. Her eyes, though, said that there was more than that, if only because they held the shadows of pain and the hint of steel beneath the surface.

"Go get your bag," Gwen ordered, "or you're going to make us late."

"I don't mind," Alaric said. "Besides, it would be nice to get out of this suit for a while."

Gwen put up a hand, halting him as he took a step forwards, her expression set and determined. "Not going to happen," she said firmly. "We just got you into that suit and I don't have the inclination to fix my hair after you mess it up. We are going to leave, now, and we are not going to be late. Your mother is expecting us."

Alaric sighed, curling his lip in annoyance at the fact that he really had to go through with this and the knowledge that Gwen was, again, right. The retirement party had seemed like a vague unpleasantness before. With the truth of its presence looming before him in the form of two small weekend bags that he and Gwen had packed, the unpleasantness turned into something much worse: dread and a headache. The only bright point that he could see was that Gwen would be at his side, suffering with him. He ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. "Fine. Fine, have it your way. But I get to pick the music on the way," he said, growling. Gwen made a face, but didn't argue.

The two picked up the bags and went out to Alaric's car, stowing them in the trunk. Gwen put the cooler with provisions for the trip—should either of them get hungry or thirsty on the way up, run out of food during the party or need a snack where there would be no shops—in the back. Alaric turned the car on, sat for exactly forty-seven seconds and debated calling the whole thing off, then put the car into gear and started the journey to his parents' house in Bedfordshire. He knew, just as soon as he had turned the radio to a station playing rock music and saw Gwen take a slow, deep breath, that it was going to be a long trip.

They remained in relative peace for the amount of time it took them to get out of London before breaking out into bickering. It started, as most things do, with Alaric's choice of music. "Can we play something a bit less... boring? The same four chords make up every single one of the songs we've heard so far," Gwen said. "Maybe there's a station playing the classics. You know, Dire Straits, Toto. Or the blues. Just something a bit more musically interesting."

"We agreed that I get to choose the music on the way there," Alaric snapped. "And it's not about the chords, it's about the variations on those chords and the lyrics behind them."

"Oh, so the 'na, na, nas' actually mean something?" Gwen asked, the sarcasm in her voice so thick that Alaric had to fight not to snarl something cruel. He took the sudden flare of temper out on a car that had just passed him on the left, muttering incoherently at the driver. Gwen watched all of this silently and waited for a response. Alaric made no move to reply or change the station, so she grumbled and turned her head to watch the world pass by outside the window, doing her best to ignore both Alaric's bad mood and the music filling the car.

"Alright, enough. I should probably warn you about some of the people that you're going to meet this weekend," Alaric said after about ten minutes of no conversation. He turned down the dial, catching Gwen's attention and she turned her head in his direction.

"I thought you had already warned me about everyone. Your father-"

"The ass," Alaric supplied, making Gwen roll her eyes and shake her head, though she did it with a smile. "It's true," he grumbled.

"Beside the point," Gwen replied. "You warned me about him, about your crazy aunt, Harriet, isn't it? And from what I understand about your mother, she's not too bad but gets coerced into doing things that you or she doesn't like. Anyone else? Business partners, perhaps?"

"Ah, crap," Alaric said. "I forgot about all the business associates that are bound to be there. Considering that I'm the wayward son, lost-cause and all, I haven't had much contact with them. But the ones I have met are all pretentious and annoying. This is going to be a long weekend."

"I can deal with pretentious and annoying," Gwen said. "And besides, it's not as though we're trapped there. We have your car. Worse comes to worst, we can hightail it out of there and go back to London for the remainder of the weekend. I'm sure Jack wouldn't complain; he has let two of his chefs go away on holiday, no matter how short it may be."

"Right... Are you sure you don't want to turn back now?" Alaric asked, tightening his hands on the wheel. Gwen shook her head and reached across the gear shift, putting her hand on his knee. "I know, I know," Alaric muttered. He squeezed Gwen's hand and was disappointed when she pulled away. They lapsed into an easy silence and when Alaric turned to check if Gwen was watching before turning up the volume on the radio, he saw that she had unbelievably fallen asleep.

Her head lay against her hand, propped up as her elbow rested on the window sill. Her mouth was open just slightly and, as Alaric failed to avoid a pot hole in the road, it became apparent that she was deeply asleep. Finally, Alaric thought. What with Gwen's order that they spend every other night away from each other to save his sanity and let him get some sleep, he had become aware of just how much she didn't sleep. The three nights he spent continuously by her side was one thing—then they had both been distracted until late, or early depending on the view. Only when he returned to his own flat and fell exhausted into bed did he understand how little sleep he had ben getting. Ever since, it had ben his goal to get Gwen to sleep more; if he was going crazy, he couldn't imagine what damage it was doing to Gwen, who had been having problems for a while. If he had known all it would take was a prolonged car trip, he would have driven her to Scotland and back.

Alaric was tempted, as he approached his parents' house, to keep driving and not bother waking Gwen up. It wasn't the end of the world if they were late and he would much rather have Gwen sleep than deal with his family. He should have known, though, that she had some sort of sixth sense regarding these things. As soon as he began the turn onto the road to the house, she stirred and woke. She stretched and looked about. "We're here," she said. It wasn't a question.

"Unfortunately," Alaric said and turned the car into the drive. Gwen looked at the house in awe. It wasn't a manor house, per say, or a mansion, but it was bit and it was extravagant and it was grand. The grounds were well landscaped, with strategic splashes of colour drawing the eye on to the next piece of designed and manicured land. The house itself was old stone, darkened with age and looking as though it bore the weight of wealth. It was a monied house and with an Audi and BMW in the drive, there was no doubt as to the wealth of the family that lived there. "Home sweet home," Alaric said sardonically, cutting the engine with an annoyed jerk of his wrist.

"Oh, my," Gwen replied, unable to come up with any other coherent statement. Alaric nodded grimly.

The sound of the car must have alerted the people inside because as soon as Gwen got out of the car and walked around it, the front door opened and a woman ran out. She was shorter than Alaric by a fair amount and she was round where her son was lean, but there was no denying the family resemblance. She had his same dark hair and sharp eyes, though hers were welled with tears. She wore a suit of deep royal blue and her shoes looked as though they had just been purchased; there were pearls at her ears and her throat. None of that prevented her from running across the drive and nearly tripping on the gravel to throw herself at Alaric.

"My boy!" she cried, wrapping him in an exuberant hug. He took a deep breath and returned the hug, though it was plain that his enthusiasm was nowhere on par with that of his mother. "Alaric, I'm so glad you're here. It's been so long."

"You can visit, Mum," Alaric said. "Just because I won't come here doesn't mean that my flat is closed to you."

"Oh, well," his mother deferred, waving her hand dismissively and averting her gaze. It was this that brought Gwen to her attention. Mrs. Bennet took one look at Gwen and widened her eyes in surprise. "You're not Jack," she said then shook her head and put on a smile. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cause offence. I'm Caroline Bennet, Alaric's mother."

"Gwen Townsend," Gwen said, extending her hand. Mrs. Bennet took it gingerly and shook. "I take it Alaric didn't tell you I was coming?"

"Well, I told him he should bring someone, I just thought he would... I'm sorry," she apologised again, a faint blush rising to her cheeks. Alaric put his arm around Gwen's shoulder, an act which caused his mother to purse her lips in alarm.

"Jack wouldn't come back after what happened last time. And I thought that you would like to meet Gwen. She's, well, er," Alaric said, trying to put what they had into a word that didn't sound so immature as "girlfriend."

"We're dating," Gwen stepped in. She saw the quick flash of panic in Mrs. Bennet's eyes and winced. "And Alaric didn't tell you that, either, did he?"

"No," Mrs. Bennet said in a quiet voice, looking ashamed that she had been read so easily. "I didn't know. I wish I had, or I wouldn't have invited Melissa..."

"Damn it," Alaric snarled, making his mother recoil. Gwen squeezed Alaric's arm in a warning gesture, making sure that he felt it before releasing him and returning her friendly gaze to his mother. "Sorry," Alaric muttered. "Mum, why did you feel it was necessary to invite my ex-girlfriend to this thing?"

"I thought... well, I didn't know that you were dating anyone and she was the only one of your girlfriends that was willing to put up with your father, so I thought that when you came, she might..." his mother trailed off as if realising the impropriety of her statement. She pressed a hand to her head and blinked rapidly, fighting off tears. Alaric was still dealing with his own anger and didn't notice his mother's distress.

"Mum, I broke up with her for a reason. And she put up with Father because she's a lawyer," Alaric said, not bothering to check the volume of his words. Gwen squeezed his arm again, this time not releasing her grip even when Alaric winced.

"I wouldn't worry too much, Mrs. Bennet," Gwen said with an easy smile. "I've put up with your son yelling at me in the kitchens. I think I can keep him under control when dealing with ex-girlfriends. Besides, I'd like to meet her, to thank her for getting him into such a wonderful flat."

Mrs. Bennet smiled at Gwen's words, though the smile was watery and looked like it could fade at any moment. "Please, call me Carol. You work with Alaric?"

"I was one of his students, but now I work at The Wooden Rose full time. It's very fulfilling, apart from being yelled at if I so much as overcook the salmon," Gwen teased. Alaric started struggling slightly in her grip and she squeezed harder before releasing him, completely ignoring the annoyed look he threw at her. "I hear that he got his passion for cooking from you."

"Oh, he did not," Carol said, the smile becoming more solidified on her features. "I just dabble in the kitchen is all. I've forgotten my manners! You two have probably been driving for hours. Would you like some tea? I've got some fresh baked bread and cucumber salad if you're hungry. Come in, come in!"

"That sounds wonderful," Gwen said, and leaving Alaric to handle their bags on his own as punishment, followed Carol inside the grand house. "You have a lovely house," she said. With that, Carol's smile became fixed and Gwen was led through a history of the house and all the recent renovations or decorations. The two women, much to Alaric's amazement and slight discomfort, became immediate friends.

Somehow—Alaric wasn't going to ask how his mother arranged it—they managed to avoid seeing his father until supper that evening. If Alaric could have gotten away with it, he would have taken Gwen out to supper in the town, but that wouldn't have gone over well. He had to try and make his way through the weekend without any serious infractions. He failed within the first ten minutes.

Gwen and Alaric were called to supper by Carol, who insisted on pouring them both drinks and serving appetizers. "Now," she said, filling Gwen's wine glass with a deep burgundy liquid. It was, apparently, very old and very expensive, but when Gwen tasted it, she could find nothing to distinguish it. "I don't want you making yourself uneasy about this. I imagine Alaric has told you a few stories about his father, but he is a good man. He can be difficult at times and, well, a bit overbearing, but he's not a bad man."

"I'm sure I'll manage," Gwen said. Carol looked at her with a worried expression and sighed, looking around the dining room to make sure no one else was in ear shot. With Alaric in the kitchen overseeing the production of the appetizers, there was little doubt of that.

"Watch your step," Carol advised. "I will simply say that Alaric inherited his temper from his father and he didn't even get the full force of it. You've probably experienced that, what with his yelling in the kitchens—I've heard he can be quite the fearsome boss."

"I have," Gwen said. She had purposefully neglected to mention her previous employment, planning on saving it for the right time, but suspected that it would have to be revealed sooner rather than later. She wasn't about to let a difficult old solicitor intimidate her. "And I assure you that I wouldn't be involved with your son unless I could handle his temper. I've had worse."

"Oh," Carol said, blinking in confusion and jumping when Alaric returned, following the man carrying the tray with a watchful eye. Gwen shouldn't have been surprised, considering the grandeur of the house, but the presence of servants continued to startle her. More had been hired for the party, so the house was busier than usual. Even so, it was... different than what she had come to expect. Her social standing, at least before being plucked up by Walter Smythe, was below that of the people catering to her needs. She tried not to be uncomfortable and only partially succeeded.

"And make sure that the lamb is basted with that rosemary and vegetable stock in exactly ten minutes. Don't put the orange peel in until the last five minutes of cooking or the flavour will be overpowered," Alaric instructed the man who set the appetizer plater onto the sideboard. The servant nodded thanks for the instructions and disappeared through the door before Alaric could remind him how to cut the lamb. Gwen sighed and picked up her wine. It was going to be a long weekend. "These people you've hired are decent," Alaric told his mother, picking up a glass with scotch. "But they could use a bit of help."

"Not from you," Carol said with a shake of her head. "You promised that you would stay out of the kitchens during this event. You have to keep your pretty Gwen company, after all."

"She's as likely to retreat to the kitchens as I am," Alaric muttered, reaching for one of the small dishes and piling it with titbits from the plater of food. Gwen was about to mention that it might be wise to wait until his father arrived when the door burst open and a stately man walked in, glowering strongly enough to have Carol wincing, Alaric frowning and Gwen straightening her posture.

He was every part of Alaric that was not his mother, all the lean and hard pieces that had never been tempered. His hair was steel grey and swept back from his forehead in an elegant wave, his eyes and face lined deeply from years of severe expressions. He wore a suit that was well-cut and more expensive than the clothes his wife wore. The most dangerous part about him was the cunning that rode in his eyes. He was, Gwen determined, a formidable ally and an even more formidable enemy. She was immediately on her guard.

At the sight of Alaric and Gwen, Mr. Bennet stopped, his glower deepening. "What are you doing here?" he asked Alaric, his voice ringing with deep, enthralling tones that would be quite deadly in court.

"You didn't tell him I was coming?" Alaric asked his mother, his lip curling in distaste. Carol opened and closed her mouth as if struggling to find words and ended up simply shutting down, her eyes slipping to the floor in defence. "I can't think of a more terrible plan."

"Carol?" Mr. Bennet asked, raising his eyebrows expectantly at his wife. She jerked as if struck and poured a drink before walking over to her husband. Gwen wanted to frown in disapproval, but she forced herself to remain calm and serene. "Why did you bring him here?"

Alright, enough, Gwen thought. It was time for her to act. "Your lovely wife invited Alaric and myself here for your retirement party. I offer my congratulations on that point. You must have been quite successful in your practise to manage such a lovely house."

"And you are?" Mr. Bennet asked pointedly, taking a long sip of his drink while keeping his eyes fixed on Gwen. He obviously didn't suffer with propriety. Fine, she could be direct as well. She set her wine on the sideboard and strode forwards, her demeanour changing as it did. By the time she stood in front of Alaric's father, she was no longer Gwen the chef, dressed well and enjoying the hospitality of her boyfriend's family but Lieutenant Townsend, of the Special Forces, geared for battle. She didn't think herself small when she saw Mr. Bennet blink in astonishment at the change.

"Gwen Townsend," she said, extending her hand. "I'm involved with your son."

"Nathaniel Bennet," the man replied, ignoring Gwen's second statement until he could deal with the first. He took her hand and started in shock at the raw strength he felt there. She held the grip for a second longer than necessary before smiling pleasantly and returning to her drink. Alaric smiled weakly at her, looking stunned. Gwen handed him his drink before taking her own.

"Carol?" Nathaniel asked again, this time the question more urgent than before, though he did manage to quiet his voice somewhat.

"I thought it would be good to have him out. He's done so well with his restaurant and you're retiring and... well, it would be nice," she said. Nathaniel opened his mouth to say something, which wasn't likely to be very kind, when the doorbell rang, breaking through the tension in the room like a knife.

"We'll discuss this later," Nathaniel growled to his wife. He drained the last of his drink in one quick jerk and went to see to the door. Carol smiled fleetingly at Gwen and Alaric and followed her husband, like a dog trailing after its master. Gwen said nothing, only snatched a titbit from Alaric's plate and popped it in her mouth.

"That could have gone better," Alaric said, draining his own drink in a move very similar to that of his father. Gwen nodded, but there was a quiet amusement in her eyes. "Don't give me that," he grumbled, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and pressing a quick kiss to her forehead. "I am well justified in getting drunk."

"I never said otherwise," Gwen replied primly. Alaric shook his head and disentangled himself from her embrace to pour another scotch.

"Smart ass," he said. Gwen laughed, the sound strange and unfamiliar in the dining room which was more used to seeing arguments and anger than joy. Even that was short lived. Gwen's laughter fell silent as the door swung open again, letting Nathaniel back in the room, his wife trailing behind with her arm through that of another younger woman. She was tall, leggy, and wearing a dress that left absolutely nothing to the imagination while still remaining—mysteriously—professional. Her reddish-brown hair hung in a thick sheet down to her waist and she carried herself with the ease of the knowingly attractive.

Before any introductions could be made and anyone else could do something, the woman moved forwards in a quick stride, her dangerous-looking heels eating up the ground to bring her to a full stop before Alaric. She didn't waste a moment, just put her hands on either side of his face and pulled him to her, greeting him with a very deep, very intimate kiss. The woman pulled away, a wide smile somehow only making her more attractive. "Alaric! It's been too long since we've seen each other. I've missed you!" she simpered.

Alaric gaped, swallowing nervously and too aghast to say anything other than, "M-Melissa."

Gwen narrowed her eyes, setting her wine glass down before it broke. This was not going to end well, especially not for the ex-girlfriend.

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