The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 3

"Today, we are going to be making one of the specials on The Rose menu," Alaric said, pacing before the students like a general preparing his troops. Gwen didn't enjoy the comparison but, like any good soldier, kept her mouth quiet and her eyes gazing straight ahead. Her posture was straight and her hands were folded behind her back. "Gratineed Mussels."

There was excited murmuring from James and Sarah, who both worked extensively with sea-food in the past and knew how to prepare mussels. Gwen had, in her cooking experiments the last two weeks, attempted to work with them but hadn't gotten very far past the simple cleaning and broiling stage. Cleaning, though, she could do—or so she thought.

Alaric sent Allison into the store rooms and brought out buckets of the shelled creatures. They were obviously fresh and gave off a distinct smell of the ocean and the fish-market. Alaric took the buckets and slammed them on the counter. "Alright, the recipe for the dish is over there," he jerked his head towards a wall where various recipes had been hung. "Ingredients are in the fridge and store rooms. You have an hour to create a meal with the mussels as the main course. We have some of our kitchen staff coming to eat lunch here and they will taste each meal and tell you which is the best. That person will have the honour of acting as sous chef tonight."

There was silence for a few moments as everyone took the stakes in and waited for Alaric's command. He raised his eyebrows at them and said, as if he had been expecting them to act on their own, "Well, get to!"

The kitchens became, suddenly, a flurry of action and noise, each person dashing off to the recipe board or the store rooms to grab other ingredients for the different portions of the dish. Gwen didn't bother with that, though she didn't know the specifics of the recipe or even what she was going to do. She walked over to the buckets, grabbed a clean bowl and took a large handful of the mussels, moving to her workstation to begin cleaning them.

She had learned from experience—and the horrified looks of one of her neighbours—that mussels needed to be properly cleaned and set to soak so they could disgorge the sand that was invariably trapped inside. Normally, in a kitchen, the mussels were already cleaned and prepped for the chefs, but she doubted Alaric wanted to make it any easier on them. So, she stood with her hands under a faucet, a scrub brush diligently cleaning each mussel and putting it in a bowl of water while the other students rushed about, adding butter to sauce pans, blending ingredients and creating wonderful things. Time ticked on.

"Forty-five minutes left," Alaric said just as Gwen put her last mussel in its bowl. She took a deep breath and walked over to the recipe board, finding the piece of paper that everyone had been staring at. She paused, considered and blinked. That was it? Apart from cleaning the mussels, it was a fairly easy task.

"What are you doing?" Alaric hissed, coming up behind her. "Can't you even figure out a simple recipe?"

"I was thinking about what to do with the mussels," Gwen said flatly, knowing better than to rise to his bait. She was used to the harassment of her peers and her superiors. Alaric would not get the satisfaction of seeing her crack.

"So, you can't even combine flavours properly? What sort of cook can't even get the right flavours together?" Alaric sneered, dropping his voice to a low murmur as Robert walked past. Gwen said nothing and moved away, going to the fridge and getting the ingredients she needed for the mussels as well as a shallot and onion plus a bottle of brown ale. Without looking at Alaric as she returned to her work station, Gwen began to cook with only forty-minutes remaining on the clock.

Maybe it was her training under pressure or the fact that she was so new at this, but Gwen didn't bother to think about the clock; she simply cooked as best she could and trusted that things would sort themselves out. With twenty minutes remaining, she put the mussels—now shucked and prepared with butter, garlic and breadcrumbs—under the broiler and added added a thickening agent to her soup. She strode across the kitchen and grabbed half a loaf of french bread, continuously watched by Alaric and, occasionally the other students.

Most everyone was concerned with their own dishes, but a few—such as James—were quipping with a few of the other students, trying to get them to mess up or break their concentration. Gwen, with her work station as far away from the store rooms as possible, nearly completely isolated from her peers by Alaric's design, was able to ignore the talking and jeering.

The students, she could ignore, but Alaric was getting increasingly on her nerves. He would walk by her station every few minutes, staring closely at what she was doing, watching as she pulled the mussels out of the broiler and pulled them out of the pan, dumping the briny liquid which remained into her soup along with some parsley. He seemed to have learned not to say anything but he made it perfectly clear that Gwen wasn't working up to his standards and if she didn't improve, then he would have to take it up with someone else, namely Walter. The frowns and anger that Alaric seemed to radiate weren't helping, either. Gwen, as she began plating, was beginning to get frazzled.

Alaric let out a quiet bark of laughter as she put her first mussel onto the plate. It fell from her fingers onto the dinnerware with a clatter, the shell sliding about a bit. The mussel itself wasn't harmed, but Gwen had begun to shake, jumping between anger at the insinuations that Alaric was making and the fact that she knew, of all people, she was the one who was going to make the mistake.

What had she been thinking? What had Walter thought when he put her in this high-end cooking school? Did he think that she could make it, compete with people who had been cooking since they were little? She was a soldier, an Army veteran and good at little else but combat and following orders. Even that was taken from her due to her incompetence. People were dead because she couldn't do one simple thing.

"Two minutes," Alaric called throughout the kitchen, waking Gwen up. She noticed that her hands were gripping the edge of the counter quite perilously—for her or the counter, she didn't know—and her plate had only one mussel on it. She finished doing her task and couldn't help but feel relieved when Alaric called time. Gwen let her shoulders fall from their typically straight and tight position and did her best not to look at the plate.

A moment later and she straightened her shoulders again and did her best to look as pleased as the other students as they came together to discuss what they had made. Alaric didn't let them pause long enough for much chatter, as the kitchen staff had arrived. Gwen followed the other students and stood in a line before the kitchen staff.

"What lovely food do you have for us today?" Jamie asked, grinning at the slightly nervous students. "I'm starving."

"You had better be, to taste everything," Cecil snorted. The other staff laughed and grinned and only settled down when Alaric appeared, all of the students' dishes on a dessert tray, ready to eat.

"Alright, no claiming your dish until the very end. In fact, to avoid prejudices completely, you all get to go back to the kitchen and clean up the mess you made. I want to see it sparkling by the time I've finished with this lot," Alaric snapped. Rather than argue, everyone headed back to the kitchens.

"Ugh," Jennifer said as they returned to the kitchens and saw the mess. "You know, Bennet isn't the easiest person to work with. He's criticised my methods far more times than I can count, and I've used them for years. It's making learning things very difficult. Not to mention that we have to do all the menial work around here."

"You signed up for this," James answered, his voice taking on a sharp snap. "If you don't like it, you can leave."

Jennifer bristled at this but said nothing, choosing instead to exchange a look with the sympathetic Sarah and start on putting her used dishes in the dishwasher. Gwen started on her own work and was setting into the familiar rhythm of work when Allison joined her. The small blonde woman looked slightly uncomfortable, but her jaw was set and there was no doubt in Gwen's mind that she had come over here for a purpose.

"How do you think the challenge went?" Allison asked. She started scrubbing the counters hard enough that her knuckles were turning white.

Gwen shrugged, "Well enough, I suppose. Mussels are sort of new to me. Not that I'm as good at this as you are, considering my career background."

"You're managing," Allison said shortly. Then, she sighed. "In the Special Forces, you learned hand-to-hand combat, right?"

Gwen thought of the hours training with her squadron, the countless times that she had been thrown to the ground when sparring with some of the men, until she could hold her own. She had been taunted and harassed and made to feel as worthless as any woman in a "man's profession" could be. Until she learned to hold her own, that is. She still had the scars from some of her training sessions to prove her worth. "Yeah," she said. "I learned a fair amount."

"Do you think that you could teach me?" Allison asked, blurting out the words as if she were afraid of holding them in.

"What? Why?" Gwen asked. She flinched at her own words and shook her head. The look that Allison threw to the men in the room was enough to tell its own story. "Yeah, I mean, most of the stuff I know is pretty advanced and specialised for, er, war. But I can definitely teach you some basic self-defence tactics."

"Really?" the small blonde woman said, looking into Gwen's eyes for the first time. Gwen nodded. "Thank you! I mean, really, thanks. I know that you're probably really busy with the school and whatever else, but this means a lot."

"Sure," Gwen said. "We don't have a whole lot of time to work on this, though. Except mornings and weekends, that is."

"Mornings and weekends is great," Allison said. She plunged her hands into a bucket of soapy water, emerging with a sponge, which she then proceeded to squeeze as if trying to kill it. "I want to learn as much as possible."

"Uh, alright, then," Gwen said. "How about Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays at, say, seven? Then we can do a longer session on Saturdays."

"Seven? That's a bit early, don't you think?" Allison balked, suddenly more nervous than angry. The realisation of what she was doing seemed to had sunk in a bit.

"Well, classes start at noon and I don't want to devote only a little bit of time to this. We can do seven to ten and still have plenty of time to get ready for classes," Gwen said. Allison nodded and started asking another question when Alaric returned. The kitchen was pretty clean, but Gwen doubted it was anywhere near sparkling.

"Is this the best you can do?" Alaric growled. He looked around the kitchen and focused on Gwen and Allison, the only two obviously working close together enough to be having a conversation while working. "Do you think that this is a social club? Think that you can just talk instead of doing work?"

"It's my fault," Gwen said before Allison could even consider blushing. "I was asking a question about the best use of white wine in cream sauces."

The head chef could find no fault with this answer—cream sauces was what he had been working on with Gwen the night before—and settled for an irascible mutter under his breath. "You can finish this later," he decided, pointedly ignoring the subtle grins that the students exchanged. "The 'judges' have decided," he said, curling his lip slightly. For a moment, looking at the displeasure on his face, Gwen felt a rush of hope that maybe, just maybe, she had won. But that was quickly suppressed and she followed everyone back out of the kitchens, as demure as before.

The kitchen staff all sat around, joking and talking with one another in a way that was missing dreadfully from the rapport within the students. With them, it was all about competition and winning the attention of Alaric rather than tackling the tasks in a friendly manner. Gwen missed the camaraderie of the Army and knew that she wanted what the people on the staff had: a secure sense of self and a lack of cruel competition.

"Alright, alright, settle down," Jack said. Gwen blinked, not having noticed him before. He must have slipped in after they went back to clean the kitchens. "We have some critiquing to do."

"We'll start with the mussels and risotto," Alaric said, indicating a dish that looked as though many people had tasted it but not eaten. So it went with each and every dish. Some, like the risotto, were too dependent on a citrus or savoury flavour, not letting the mussels speak for themselves. Others relied solely on the mussels to make the meal. All were good, including Gwen's, and yet there could be only one winner.

"Who made the mussels with the stuffed bell peppers?" Cecil asked. James took a step forwards, unabashedly smirking, though he had the decency to duck his head. "Well done," was all that was said, and that was that.

"You'll be working along side Jamie," Alaric said. He looked at all the dishes that sat on the table and was silent for a moment, as if considering something. Then, he shook his head and looked up, drawing his brows together as he looked at the students. "I thought you had a job to do," he said. That was enough to have everyone scrambling back to the kitchens.

"We're never going to hear the end of this," Jennifer muttered to Robert and Gwen, eyeing James as he traipsed back to the kitchens, definitely sporting a bounce in his step. Gwen shook her head and shrugged. There was always one like James. He wasn't a bad person, but he definitely took a bit more stock in himself than others did. Her best friend, Damon, had been like that, cocky and sure of himself but the most loyal companion that anyone could have wanted.

There was a pang of bone-crushing pain in the centre of Gwen's chest and she faltered for a moment, leaning against the door frame into the kitchens. Gone. Her fault. There was nothing she could do about that, but it still hurt like being shot. And right then, Gwen wished that she had been shot. Her breath wouldn't come and she saw the destruction that she had caused rather than the kitchens. Her commanding officer, Damon, everything.

"Gwen?" Allison's voice broke the vision and Gwen took a deep breath, fixing her gaze on the small woman as if taking to a life-line. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah. Just tired," Gwen said. "I'm fine. Let's get this done." Allison shrugged, nodded, then they got to work.

Jennifer's prediction had been right. For the rest of the day and evening, James moved around as though he had been awarded some high honour or been asked to shake hands with the Prime Minister on National television. Bob, Tom and Sarah took to calling him "Your Exaltedness" behind his back and, before long, it was a name that stuck, eventually being shortened to "Yex." Even the kitchen staff picked it up and James only started hearing it once it was shortened. He took to it immediately, causing some sniggers behind raised hands.

Gwen, for her part, did much better that night than she had since starting the classes a week ago. She was able to keep up with all of the orders and only made a mistake when she handed someone virgin olive oil instead of extra virgin. She was beginning to think that things were going to work out alright, that maybe she wasn't as hopeless at this as she had thought—and Alaric made her believe.

When the time came for her private class with Alaric, though, the good evening seemed to vanish. Before he even spoke, she could tell that he wasn't happy with her. Had it been her mussels? The critique had made it seem as though people enjoyed the soup, though it was a bit rich, and her actual filling had done well. But Alaric hadn't said anything and, from the way that he was glaring at her, she didn't think the chances were great.

"Are you going to keep trying to incinerate me or are we going to start working?" Gwen asked after two awkward minutes of standing at a work station, trying to think of something she could do without Alaric's direction. Everything was clean and she didn't think they would be working on cream sauces again, though, so she went with mild insubordination.

"What?" Alaric hissed, narrowing his eyes.

"Now, hold it." The third voice made both Gwen and Alaric jump, though Gwen came out in a fighting position and Alaric simply clenched his fists. Jack had walked back into the restaurant, obviously having forgotten something and was now looking between the two as though they were dangerous beasts. "Alaric, you can't go treating people like this."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Alaric said, shooting a warning glance at Gwen. She held her tongue, knowing what would happen if she spoke out against her "boss" with his.

"I came to get my jacket and I see you about to go on a tirade," Jack said, crossing so that he stood directly in front of Alaric. "And don't you dare deny it, because I know exactly what you on a tirade looks like. You are going to chew her out because she's not your ideal student and because I 'forced' her on you. But you know perfectly well that, if not for your outspoken jibes this afternoon, that her dish would have fared better with your staff than those over seasoned peppers. You don't think that someone who hasn't trained for years can do this and you want to prove it."

"Jack, I'm just trying to figure out what to work on tonight," Alaric said, frowning. "You're reading far too much into the situation."

"Am I?" Jack asked. He rounded on Gwen. "Has he been harassing you about not belonging in his kitchen?"

Yes. "No, sir," Gwen said, replying as would a soldier. It was an age old tradition, just like saying, "I fell," after getting into a fight. Her battles would be fought by her and her alone, if there was even a battle to be fought. As far as Gwen was concerned, Alaric was justified in voicing his opinions about her. She wasn't even sure she belonged at The Rose. After all, little more than three weeks ago, she had been wandering the streets.

"Are you lying to me?" Jack asked. It wasn't a question but a statement of fact. The manager's eyebrows were raised in surprise and confusion and Jack looked between Alaric and Gwen, trying to understand. Alaric's jaw ticked and he stared hard at the wall beyond Jack's shoulder, just as confused as to Gwen's answer.

She had every right to complain against him, considering all that he had done. And, granted, he had been in the wrong on some of that. Her mussels certainly had come out very well, especially in comparison to some of the other dishes. And there was no doubt that she worked hard, meticulously pursuing a task until it was perfected. There was even a sort of flair for the work that was getting harder and harder to deny. But that didn't mean that Alaric wanted her in his kitchens.

He didn't like being told what to do, who to hire, even by wealthy philanthropists to whom he owed a favour. He wanted her out, and not completely for the reasons he was giving her. The other students were beginning to admire this former soldier, looking to see what sort of life this woman was creating. She was certainly gathering enough attention from Jamie and Cecil, not to mention the joking statements from her peers. Even Jack was on her side. There was nothing that could give Alaric any reason for disliking this, but he did. He didn't like how much attention she was getting and he didn't like that his thoughts revolved around her whenever he was in the kitchens, teaching. He noticed that he had gone out of his way, twice, to explain a concept that all the other students knew so that she could understand. Alaric didn't like that he was beginning to enjoy her company.

Jack looked once more at Gwen, as if he could force an answer out of her, then shook his head and let out a deep breath. "Alright, fine. I won't press the issue. But Alaric, remember what we said about an outlet? This doesn't count."

"Wh-" Alaric started, then remembered. He tightened his jaw and jerked his head in understanding at Jack. He thought that Alaric was taking his anger out on Gwen instead of getting into boxing or counselling or whatever it was that he was supposed to be doing. The very thought was insulting.

"Goodnight," Jack said, going to his office and returning a moment later with his jacket. "Oh, and Gwen, you might want to call Walter. His assistant has been bothering me about wanting a status update."

"Yes, sir," Gwen said, again acting the soldier. Jack paused and answered her with a soft smile.

"It wasn't an order, Lieutenant."

"Right," Gwen muttered. Then, Jack was gone. Alaric sighed and pressed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

"I should—He's right," Alaric said. "I have been giving you a hard time."

"I've had worse," Gwen answered solemnly, causing Alaric to look at her and meet her gaze. She had the look of pain in her eyes that he had seen on people who had just lost a friend. He blinked and the look was gone.

"Still, you haven't been as dreadful as I've made it seem. Frankly, in a week or so, you'll be on par with most of the others. Your mussels were... very good," Alaric said.

"Thank you," Gwen said honestly. She couldn't tell him that she had been practising, because that would be taking pride in this. But what else could she say? A compliment from this fiery head-chef was as strange as snow in summer.

"That doesn't mean you're going to be able to stop working," Alaric growled, as though he suddenly realised that he had given Gwen a way out. She nodded.

"What should we-" she started, stopping at the sound of a very shrill and terrified scream.

"What was that?" Alaric said, turning around as though he could find the source of the noise in his kitchens. Gwen didn't bother looking, just followed her gut and ran to the door, her field of vision narrowing in a familiar manner. She shoved open the door to the loading dock and went through, scanning the area first.

What she saw sickened her. Allison was standing with her back against the loading dock, wrapped in her jacket, her hands shaking and her keys jingling as she shook. She, like Jack, had returned to pick up something she had forgotten and, unlike Jack, had run into trouble with some of the local street-walkers. They were people who preyed on the rich who got caught on their own and they were the more vicious amongst those who wandered the streets.

There were two of them, one holding a knife, the other crooning to Allison. Gwen didn't think, didn't register that Alaric had come through the door as well or that neither of the attackers had noticed her. She simply acted as she had been trained, jumping off the dock and landing before Allison in a slight crouch. Protect those in need. That's what she had drilled into her head every day of her military career and that didn't stop just because she was off the battle field.

Adrenaline began coursing through her and she held up her hands to fight as the two men looked at each other, leered, and continued forwards. "Stop," Gwen snarled, the sound similar to that which Alaric often made but much more dangerous and vicious, much more uncontrolled.

"I don't think so," the man with the knife said.

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