The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 20

Gwen had to fight not to attack Melissa, telling herself that it would do her no good to be petty. Melissa had no idea about Gwen; after all, she had been invited to the party for the express purpose of being there for Alaric. When she thought about it like that, Gwen did her best not to laugh. Carol Bennet had called a woman to be a, to be blunt, sex-buddy for Alaric. It was telling about Melissa that she had taken the offer to heart. So, instead of jumping forwards to defend her standing, Gwen picked up the wine glass again and took a very relaxed sip.

If Alaric was expecting her to step in and save him from over-affectionate ex-girlfriends, he was disappointed. He beat a hasty retreat and stood by Gwen, expression flickering with shock as she did nothing more than sip her wine. It wouldn't hurt for her to be slightly jealous, he felt. He ran his hand through his hair and struggled to come up with something to say. He couldn't ask what she was doing there as he knew she had been invited. He couldn't ask what she thought she was doing with that kiss because it was fairly obvious. He settled on making a strangled noise in the back of his throat, all that would come out.

"Alaric," Gwen said, finally coming to his rescue and slipping her arm through his. He seized it like a lifeline. "Why don't you introduce us?"

That seemed like a terrible idea, but he could come up with no others. "Erm, Melissa, this is Gwen, my, uh, girlfriend. Gwen, Melissa."

The other woman blinked in surprise and took a long look at Gwen. Then, smiling without guile and having the grace to blush, said, "Oh, my. I'm so sorry!"

"No problem," Gwen smiled back, making Alaric blanch. "Alaric needs to be flustered every now and again. It's a change from him snapping at me."

"I know exactly what you mean," Melissa chuckled, beaming at Carol as the older woman gave her a drink. Alaric blinked in shock, feeling completely out of place as the woman he was currently involved with and the one he had been previously involved with started talking as though they were actually getting along. Somehow, the five of them sat at the table and, as Gwen and Melissa laughed over something, he knew it was going to be the longest weekend of his life.

Family dinner lasted far too long, in Alaric's view. By the time Gwen and he made it back to their room—at least his mother had the sense to room them together—he was exhausted from trying to keep up on the conversation between his mother and the other two women. His father, for which he was extremely thankful, said next to nothing during the whole meal, only breaking that silence when Melissa started talking about her work. Alaric said even less, drinking enough hard liquor to give him a nice buzz. So, when he closed the door behind Gwen, leaving them essentially shut away, he smiled at her and reached to wrap his arms around her waist, thinking of alleviating his pain in her.

"Oh, no you don't," Gwen said, putting a hand on his chest and pushing back gently.

"I'm hurting, Gwen," Alaric pleaded, "can't you see that?"

"I see someone who is trying to make himself feel better about being assaulted by his ex-girlfriend by having sex with his current girlfriend," Gwen replied, raising her eyebrows. "Here's a thought, why don't you talk about it?"

"I don't have a problem except for the fact that I'm being put upon by all sides," Alaric pleaded, though he was quickly becoming annoyed. "There's nothing to talk about."

"That's crap," Gwen said, fisting her hands on her hips. "I know all about your problems with your father and I have no doubt that you have problems with Melissa. I know you're annoyed at having to be here at all and I know that this evening didn't turn out like you expected."

"Seems like you know all there is to know," Alaric growled, turning away from her and unbuttoning his shirt. He pulled the old shirt he had packed from the bag and stripped down to his boxers, growling all the while.

"It doesn't matter," Gwen said flatly. "Because you are still annoyed and you still need to talk about it. Just because I've been informed of your issues in these various areas doesn't mean you can slide by with saying nothing and expecting me to just sit here and let you be frustrated. That's sort of the whole point of a relationship, Alaric. You tell me what's bothering you. I tell you what's bothering me. We may have to pry that information out of each other, but we talk."

"I don't want to talk," Alaric said. "I've had a long day and I'm tired. I know you'll just stay up for another four hours anyways, but I'm going to bed."

"See?" Gwen said, following him when he grabbed his toothbrush and stalked into the bathroom. "You're annoyed. You're bothered. Now talk about it. Unless you think this relationship is one-sided and I'm the only one who has to talk about things. Or if you're just in this for the sex."

"What?" Alaric recoiled, the toothbrush halfway to his mouth, toothpaste flecking his lips. "No! How can you think that this is just about sex? After all the shit that we've gone through? I sat with you on my couch while you complained about Graham, helped you once your nightmares started. I set up a contest so that you would have a chance at a job right next to me and you can question that this whole thing is just about sex?"

"That's the thing, Alaric, I don't know. You are more than happy to prod me and pester me until I give in and tell you just about every intimate secret in my past and present. But when I try and get more out of you besides the fact that your father is an ass and you don't have a good relationship with anyone in your family or that you won't tolerate weakness in the kitchens but will put up with it anywhere else, you just shut me down," Gwen said. "I want to know what's bothering you. I want to—I need—to know these things, Alaric. So instead of shutting me out and just trying to assuage me by taking me to bed, why don't you talk about it?"

"Fine," Alaric said, reaching for a towel to wipe his face. He glared openly at Gwen and there was a pull to his neutral expression that revealed just how angry he actually was. "Fine. You want me to tell you what I'm thinking? I'm pissed because my mother didn't see fit to tell my father that I was showing up for his retirement party and didn't even bother to apologise for it. I'm pissed because my father is and will remain, as you say, an ass who is more interested in his drink and his power over my mother than even attempting to make any conversation with me—and slighting you by doing so. I'm pissed because my mother, and my father, think that I am so hopeless in my current life to invite my ex-girlfriend; she was the only one of my ex-girlfriends that they actually liked and that's only because she's everything I'm not. I'm pissed with her for actually showing up. And I'm pissed at you because you think that this is going to help anything."

Gwen sighed and, instead of reaching out to comfort Alaric as she knew he would only shove her away, wrapped her arms around herself. The movement made Alaric wince and it was as though a knife had just been stabbed in his gut. Was he really so selfish as to expect Gwen to tell him everything and hold all of his baggage back? Sure, it was a pain to talk about and he didn't need any psychoanalysis, but she wasn't one to psychoanalyse in the first place. She just wanted to be there for him like he was with her. That was touching and now he was yelling at her for it.

"I can't say that I don't feel for you, because I do," Gwen said, forcing herself to meet his gaze. "But honestly, I think you're taking things just a little too far. You knew before coming here what this was likely to be. You knew that your father was, is, an ass and—don't bite my head off for this—that your mother is completely under his control-"

"She is," Alaric acknowledged with a sardonic snort. "There's no point in yelling at you for that."

"Alright. Anyways, you knew all of these things before coming so there's no point in getting angry over the fact. Just ignore what they think and want from you and enjoy yourself. You... well, you're getting yourself riled up over something that you can't prevent. Why try?" Gwen said. She pressed a hand to her head, wishing that she didn't sound quite so ridiculous.

Alaric blinked and stared at Gwen. He understood what she was trying to convey, but the method was almost comical. He couldn't help himself and broke out into a smile. "You... want me to take up, what, Buddhism? Taoism? Yoga?"

"You're such a pain," Gwen said, laughing in return. She had taken it far enough and would let it rest, for now. "I don't think you'd do very well under any of those regimens. I can't even imagine you trying to do yoga."

"I've done yoga," Alaric said. Gwen raised her eyebrows incredulously. "Seriously! I was, oh I must have just gotten out of culinary school or was about to. There was this college sophomore that looked really good in those tight yoga pants. I asked her out, we dated for a bit and somewhere in there, she convinced me to come with her to one of her yoga classes. I went mostly because..." he trailed off, thinking that it might not be the best time to be bringing up another one of his exes with Gwen, but she just waved her hand, expression fascinated.

"No, go on. I want to hear this. And I won't be offended that you found another girl attractive. You've dated other people. You've probably even had sex with other people. I'm not going to strangle you because of it," Gwen smirked. Alaric shook his head.

"Well, when you put it like that," he continued. "All I'll say is that she looked very interesting when bending into a pretzel. I made it through the one class and swore never again. Actually, it was the yoga that made me break up with the girl."

"Poor sophomore," Gwen said with a chuckle. Alaric stepped forwards to undo the zipper on the back of her dress. This time, she didn't protest, only kissed the base of his throat gently.

"Yeah," Alaric said, running his hands down her back and watching with pleasure as the dress pooled around her feet. "She was heartbroken for about a week. I heard she started dating this guy not long after. Very New Age type. He even did yoga."

"Perfect," Gwen said. Alaric nodded and pulled the straps of her bra off her shoulders, smiling as Gwen shivered.

"I hope you don't expect that this is going to prevent me from getting quite drunk tomorrow," Alaric said. Gwen laughed and twined her arms around his neck, burying her fingers in his hair.

"In all probability," she said, "I'll be joining you." Alaric made a satisfied sound in the back of his throat and took Gwen to bed, completely uncaring that his parents were only a few doors away. All that mattered was the woman in bed with him, her fingers doing magical things to his skin and the sounds coming from her only spurring him on. He didn't care, either, that she would likely be awake long after he was asleep or that, if she did sleep, he would be forced to deal with her fitful rest. All that mattered was the moment at hand.

Gwen did manage to sleep, though it was interrupted and she tossed and turned as if unable to get settled. Alaric slept much deeper, having slowly grown used to her interrupted sleep. But when, sometime around five in the morning, Gwen's weight disappeared from the bed, Alaric cracked open his eyes and sought her out. He saw a light from underneath the bathroom door and tried to assure himself that she was just taking a shower or something. When she emerged a minute later, though, dressed in exercise clothes and carrying her trainers in her hand, he forced himself to wake.

"What do you think you're doing?" he asked, sounding groggy and worn. Gwen jumped and turned to look at him, holding a hand to her chest.

"You nearly gave me a heart attack," she accused. He made no reply. "Don't worry, I'm just going out for a run. I'll be back in time for breakfast."

"You are not going out for a run," Alaric said, clearing his throat so that he sounded slightly more awake. It didn't work well as he yawned a moment later. "You don't know this area and it's... seriously? It's four forty-five in the morning, Gwen."

"I run around London at just about the same time and you've never had a problem before," Gwen pointed out. Alaric shook his head and threw back the duvet, grumbling as the cool morning area hit him.

"That's different," Alaric said. "You know that area. You don't know your way around here."

"So what you're saying is that you're not worried for my safety but for my sense of direction?" Gwen asked.

"Are you serious? You could take on some of the worst people in London and all that you'll have to contend with here are the neighbourhood cats," Alaric said. "If you'll just wait a few minutes, I'll come with you."

Gwen was laughing, a sound which had excited pleasure hours ago and only caused annoyance now. He was beginning to think she thought he couldn't do anything. Just to prove that he could, Alaric got out of bed and stretched, his muscles groaning at the early-morning demands. "You're willing to come on a five o'clock run with me? That's sweet, Alaric," Gwen said, pacifying his bad mood immediately. She stepped up to him and kissed him gently, her lips tasting like strawberries, which confused him as he had no idea where that could have come from. "You don't have any trainers."

"Ah," Alaric said. It was true; he hadn't packed any trainers and the only reason he brought clothes that would suit for running was for sleeping. He figured that he wouldn't be needing exercise clothes for the weekend as he planned to get out as quickly as possible. Gwen, on the other hand, seemed to plan ahead. He wondered what else was in that weekend bag of hers. "Right."

"Tell you what," Gwen said. "Put on those loafers and we can go for a walk. You can show me around and that way you won't have to worry about me getting lost."

"Or we could skip this foolish going outside thing and go back to bed," Alaric said, pulling Gwen back when she tried to pull away. She laughed again, making him smile, and shook her head.

"Too late. I'm already dressed," she said. "Come on, you won't die from morning air. And if you're good, I'll make you my famous Belgium waffles."

"My mother said that I had to stay out of the kitchens," Alaric said, but he was already moving towards the bathroom. "I think we can break that rule, though, for waffles."

Gwen nodded and Alaric got dressed. He tried to use cold water to wake himself up and only succeeded in getting his face wet. Rumbling, he hoped that the exercise with Gwen would make him slightly more amenable to facing the world. They went out through the house, sneaking so as not to wake anyone and slipping out through the side door. After half-heartedly chasing Gwen down the drive and slowing to a walk, slipping his fingers into hers, Alaric had to admit that there were worse ways to wake up. Of course, if it had been a mere two hours later, things would be exponentially better.

They walked all over the area, Alaric pointing out the various houses and describing the people that lived there. The man delivering the newspapers waved to them, looking startled to see someone else up and about at such an hour. And, as predicted, the neighbourhood cats were on the prowl, seen only as a patch of fur here or there or a streak running across the road. The sun was fully up by the time that they returned to the large house and Alaric was more than ready for a large cup of very strong coffee and waffles.

They met instead with Alaric's father, already dressed and looking rather severe, in the kitchen with a plate of eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, sausage and beans, a pot of tea nearby. He was holding the newspaper and folded it accusingly as Gwen and Alaric wandered in. "Where have you been?" he growled, the sound somehow elegant as well as biting.

"We've been out walking," Alaric said, throwing the kettle on the stove with more force than necessary. "Gwen wanted to see the area and I didn't want her going alone."

"I'm an early riser," Gwen said, glancing at the clock and noting that it was barely seven. Nathaniel tightened his mouth in a scowl but could apparently find no fault with their actions. He turned back to his paper and gave a 'humph' as the only reply. Gwen exchanged a look with Alaric, who looked just as surprised, and proceeded to make waffles. Just because the kitchen wasn't empty didn't mean she was going to be deterred. Besides, it wouldn't hurt to get Alaric to relax slightly around his father. Making waffles seemed to be a decent way of going about it.

Alaric was tense, only speaking when Gwen asked him whether there were any strawberries or where the flour was. Eventually, in the course of forcing him to whip the batter or slice up fresh fruit to boil down to a warm compote as topping, Gwen managed to get him to act at least somewhat more natural. Nathaniel sat, back tense and expression set, reading his paper methodically, not saying a word or looking up at any of the things that Gwen did or said. She set a plate of waffles on the table and poured glasses of orange juice, served Alaric and then turned to Nathaniel.

"Do you want a waffle?" she asked. The older man seemed startled by the fact that Gwen was even speaking to him, let alone offering him food. He carefully sipped his tea and furrowed his brows ever so slightly before turning to reply.

"No, thank you," he said, returning his attention to his paper as if expecting that to be everything.

"Are you sure?" Gwen asked, waving the plate of waffles through the air, the steam coming off of them tantalising. "I make a pretty tasty waffle," she said. Behind her, doing his best not to look like he had swallowed something unpleasant, Alaric cut into his breakfast with a determined focus that exactly mirrored that of his father reading the paper.

"Quite sure," Nathaniel said, shaking his paper to straighten it out, saying clearly that he was not and would never be interested in the waffles. Gwen merely shrugged and set the plate back on the table, serving herself a waffle and spooning the compote over top.

"Suit yourself," she said and proceeded to eat, stopping to converse with Alaric on subjects like the increasing price of truffles or whether or not to try a lemon crab salad as a starter on the new menu. Nathaniel left shortly afterwards and Gwen and Alaric merely finished breakfast.

They were interrupted by Carol coming to rope them into helping set up for the party. It looked to be a beautiful day with no rain in the forecast, so tables were set out on the vast lawn, covered with pristine white tablecloths and set with blue and yellow dishes. After the twentieth such table—which could seat six—Alaric began to question, again, the wisdom in coming.

"How many people can my mother expect to come?" Alaric asked as he and Gwen wrestled a twenty-first table into place. Gwen shrugged and went to fetch the chairs. "I mean, I realise that my father was a well known solicitor and had many clients that were more friends than clients, but there can't have been that many people! And that they would all come to this absurd event is just, well..."

"Absurd?" Gwen supplied. Alaric threw a napkin at her and she dodged, the lemony fabric falling to the ground.

"Alaric Mathew Bennet, I had better not see you let my good napkins fall on the ground!" Carol's voice rang out like a whip. Gwen had discovered that when the woman wasn't under the thumb of her husband or worried about being rebuffed by Alaric, she could actually be quite fierce. Especially, as it turned out, when preparing a party. Melissa was close behind Carol, carrying a basket full of shining cutlery.

She was already dressed in a slip of a dress that brushed her thighs and left little to the imagination, struggling to manage setting up while tottering along on heels that were hugely impractical. Gwen was still wearing her work-out clothes and Alaric, while dressed in pressed trousers, had left his shirt plain and his hair tousled. In another hour, they would both go dress properly. Melissa, Gwen discovered, despite her looks and charm was not the most capable person.

"Of course not," Alaric muttered under his breath, picking up the napkin and making a show of examining it for blemishes. He folded it carefully and put it on the table while Gwen arranged the chairs to her satisfaction.

"How much do you want to bet Melissa will fall over and break one of those precious heels before the party even starts?" Gwen said softly, for Alaric's ears only, as she watched the woman totter around a table, bending awkwardly to set out the cutlery. Alaric snorted in derision and shook his head.

"That's not fair. There's no point in betting at all," he said. Gwen appraised Melissa and agreed. "Come on, let's go get the last table and then we can take a break." They did just that and were just about to admire their work when Carol let out a noise that sounded like something between a laugh and a crow of dismay. Gwen turned, wondering what could have caused the woman to make such a noise and desperately hoping that it was Melissa having broke a heel. She saw, instead, that it was a man, dressed to the nines in a crisp blue suit and bearing a wrapped gift under his arm. He looked vaguely familiar, but it wasn't until a second man materialised at his shoulder, wearing a dress uniform that Gwen knew very well. Major Dalton.

"Damn it," she growled. Alaric turned to her, frowning at the unexpected cursing and about to ask whether she had dropped a plate, because if so, his mother would flay them alive. Instead, he saw her glowering in the direction of the newcomers. They were early, but that wasn't surprising. It happened with every party and that was no reason to get upset. Then Alaric recognised one of the men and understood Gwen's curse.

"We can leave if you want," he said, already grabbing her elbow and steering her away from the area. She shook him off.

"No, it's not Dalton. It's the man he's come with. Someone I hoped very much never to have to see again in my life," Gwen said. "Dr. Joseph Rawlins, psychiatrist."

Suddenly, Alaric's problems with his ex-girlfriend, bothersome father and clingy mother seemed to be nothing more than flies buzzing around his head. He thought it was time to drag Gwen away and make her reciprocate on last night. They needed to talk.

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