The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 7

The next morning, Alaric dressed with care and drove to the cafe near Major Dalton's cafe. Gwen took the bus to hospital. It was difficult to say which one was more out-of-sorts.

Alaric parked his car a block away from the cafe and sat there, though the clock on his dashboard was moving ever closer to the appointed meeting time. He just couldn't bring himself to actually get out of the car and go to Major Jonas Dalton, opening himself up to admit that he cared for Gwen and wanted to know about her so that he could help. He had essentially said as much the night before, but that was over the telephone and this was in person, with the Major's calm, understanding and piercing gaze fixed on him. Alaric hesitated until the clock told him that he was officially five minutes late then he got out of the car and walked over to the cafe.

"Chef," he heard a voice call, before he even had a chance to look over the place. Alaric turned towards the voice and felt extremely overdressed and out of place. He was wearing dark trousers and a button-up shirt, the sleeves rolled up as a concession to the almost oppressive muggy heat that lay over the city. Major Dalton was wearing a light pair of khaki trousers and a t-shirt that had obviously seen much wear.

"Good morning," Alaric said, walking over to the table and holding out his hand which Major Dalton did not hesitate to take and grasp firmly. A military man's hand-shake.

"Do you want to order some tea or some eggs or something?" the Major asked, looking over at the cashier's counter with considerable interest. "I think I'm going to see about getting some toast and a couple boiled eggs."

"I think I'll settle for tea," Alaric said. His stomach was far too wobbly for him to even consider eating. What was it about this interview—if you could call it an interview—that made him so nervous? The Major nodded and rose, returning a few minutes later with two cups of tea on a tray. He sat, they both doctored the tea as desired—cream for Major Dalton and black for Alaric—then sat in silence.

"So, you're here about Gwen's, ah, problems?" the Major asked, breaking the building tension. Alaric swallowed the mouthful of tea that he had just taken and set his cup down on the table as gently as he could. He wanted to know so badly. It was becoming ridiculous how much time he spent thinking about Gwen and how much he wanted to know her and understand the struggles she had been through. But something was holding him back.

"I... I want to know," Alaric admitted, looking at the tea before him, thinking that even that was upsetting his stomach. "But I don't think that I should be asking you to do this. The likelihood of Gwen telling me is very slim. Still, I think... I don't know why I'm telling you this, but I think that I need to wait until she tells me herself."

There was another period of silence, but the tension was lessened considerably. Major Dalton sat back in his chair and appraised Alaric carefully, taking in the full measure of the man. When he had done this, his eyes softened and a slight smile appeared at his mouth. The Major took a deep breath and another sip of tea and nodded.

"Good," he said. A waitress who looked bleary eyed and was obviously too tired for the morning shift brought the Major's food and set it down before him, nodding in acknowledgement of the thanks that was muttered. Major Dalton picked up his knife and fork before speaking again. "I don't pretend to know a thing about psychology or whatever, but I know a thing or two about Gwen and I know a thing or two about relationships."

"We're not-" Alaric tried to protest, suddenly embarrassed that he was talking about his potential relationship with a man he hardly knew on top of being the former commander of the woman he was interested in. He was silenced with a severe look and focused his attention on refilling his cup of tea while the Major continued.

"Not yet, maybe, but from the conversations we've had and the way that you look at her, not to mention the fact that she seems to be comfortable in your presence, I'd say you're well on your way," the man said, fully aware of the effect his words were having. It had been so long since he'd been able to embarrass a man simply by suggesting he had relations with a woman. It was so different from the military type that refused to be embarrassed by anything. "Relax, I'm not going to act as Gwen's protective older brother. I just care about her is all. And I wouldn't want her to end up with someone who is willing to go behind her back to try and fix things. She's been broken in the past and she's the one that ultimately needs to mend herself. I doubt it will be easy but she's on her way, working for a living instead of running."

"How do I even approach her about this?" Alaric asked, more to himself than anything.

"If you don't know how to woo a woman, I'm not going to teach you," the Major said. Alaric looked up, staring at the man incredulously. A moment later, he realised the joke and allowed himself to grin. Then came laughter and the two were soon chuckling over more than just that. Good, Major Dalton thought. The man was getting over his awkwardness. He was fiery and had a temper on him to outpace even the one Gwen held. But he was able to get it under control and maybe, just maybe, the two could make it work.

That is, if Gwen cooperated. She was sitting in the waiting room at hospital, gently cradling her broken hand in her lap. Of all the days to go breaking her hand, it had to be on her day off. And if she weren't in so much pain, she would have just put a wrap on it and gone back to work. She had dealt with worse, after all. But her fingers throbbed at any movement and her hand was swollen considerably, with great ugly bruises marbling the surface. She needed her hand to cook and so she had clambered onto a bus and was now waiting to be seen by a doctor. Her only consolation was that the brick had fared worse.

"Gwen Townsend?" a nurse called. Gwen blinked, startled, and rose, walking over to where the woman was waiting. She looked at Gwen and consulted the chart before turning and walking back to a small exam room. "Have a seat," the woman said, sitting in her own chair. Gwen sat. "So what brings you in today?""I broke my hand," Gwen said, showing the injured right appendage. "And yes, I'm sure it's broken."

"I have no doubt of that," the nurse said, turning away from the chart to look at the hand. She reached out as if to touch it then looked up at Gwen and refrained. "That's quite the injury. How did it happen?"

"I had a row with a brick," Gwen answered, only the quiet sparkling in her eye showing any amusement at the answer she gave. The nurse blinked and weakly laughed, wondering silently at the mentality of the person sitting before her. "I just need it bandaged up."

"We'll have to take x-rays," the nurse said. Gwen started to protest but the woman held up her hand and shook her head. "They're necessary to set the bones right."

"How long will it take?" Gwen sighed, slumping back in the chair.

"Well, you'll have to have a talk with the doctor—Dr. Hojek—but I'm fairly certain that he'll just send you to get x-rays scheduled anyways. I'll see how quickly I can set something up," the nurse said. "Hopefully, we'll have you out of here before too long."

"Right," Gwen answered in disbelief. The nurse asked a few more questions and then left, leaving Gwen to wait for the doctor, cradling her hand as best she could while she tried to get comfortable in the chair. She failed. The doctor entered, an older Indian gentleman with the look of someone who had seen far too much life, took one look at Gwen's hand and called to the nurse to order x-rays.

Which is how, when Graham walked in an hour later after getting a call from the hospital, he found Gwen in the waiting area in radiology, her head leaned back at an uncomfortable looking angle, her eyes glazed with boredom. "Gwen?" he asked, stepping up to her.

She jumped, as much as it was possible to jump in the waiting room chairs, then winced, her hand jostled against her leg. "What are you doing here?" Gwen asked, holding her good hand up to her head and pinching the bridge of her nose as she got over the sudden burst of pain.

"There's a stipulation in your file that if you ever get hurt, at least while Mr. Smythe is responsible for your well-being, that his office is phoned. Since I'm the office manager," Graham trailed off and shrugged his shoulders beneath his well-tailored suit.

"Do you have your fingers in every aspect of my life?" Gwen muttered, drawing her eyebrows together.

"Pardon?" Graham asked.

"Nothing," Gwen answered. She shifted in her chair and watched the man warily. Why would he come down to see her in person, rather than just calling and working out the problem from a distance. And, for that matter, why was he looking at her like that? It was some sort of mixture between pity and acceptance and something else that Gwen couldn't place and it sent a shiver down her spine. She wasn't sure whether that was good or bad.

"May I sit?" Graham asked, gesturing to the seat next to Gwen. She shrugged and he sat, looking at her swollen and bruised hand. "What happened?"

"I had a row with a brick," Gwen said, giving the same story she had given the nurse. She realised a moment too late that she probably should have told him something else.

"A row with a brick," he said slowly, curiously. "I take it you won?"

Gwen blinked; was he trying to make a joke? It was an incongruous act from Graham and she had doubted that the serious, completely focused man was capable of such a thing. Yet there it was, a joke and a slight smile at the corner of his mouth. "Yes," Gwen said. "Though it did a number on my hand.""Will you be alright to work?" Graham asked. He leaned forwards to examine the injury and Gwen obligingly held it up, though the movement alone was enough to cause her to suck in a silent breath. She had experienced worse, she reminded herself.

"I can use my left hand. All I really need is for it to get bandaged up and I'll be fine," Gwen said. "But the doctor insists on getting an x-ray. Something about being unable to set it properly otherwise."

"Well, that makes sense," Graham said.

"I never had to go through this much trouble whenever I broke a bone in the past," Gwen grumbled, trying to gauge the reaction of her companion. Would he protest to friendly conversation? After all, that was what they had been doing for the last minute or so, but then it could also be gathering information for a status report to Walter.

"I imagine things are different off of the battle field," Graham said then flinched, as if he'd said something distasteful. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bring it up..."

"It's fine," Gwen said honestly. This was strange. He was being considerate as well as attempting to be friendly. It was as though he were a completely different person. Gwen decided to make the most of the situation and ignore the memory that rose in her mind; Alaric was laughing and telling her exactly what he thought of Graham. She shoved the picture away and stifled a yawn. She had been waiting for a long time.

"If you don't mind my asking," Graham said after a moment of not-quite-awkward silence, "but what exactly was the row about?"

"With the brick? I was... angry," Gwen said, looking at the wall across from her to avoid seeing what Graham thought of that statement.

"With whom?" Graham asked, causing Gwen to start and look at him, wide-eyed. "Well, I figure that someone must have caused you to be angry. I don't take you for the type to get angry at a lost spoon."

"No," Gwen said quietly. "I guess not."

"Gwen Townsend," a radiologist called, looking over a chart. Gwen stood and Graham looked for a moment as though he were going to follow, then settled back into his seat. He would wait for her to return. Gwen followed the man to a room with an x-ray machine, ignored the sound of the machine as it took pictures of her bones and then was returned to the original waiting room. Graham came with, making no mention of leaving, for which Gwen was grateful.

"So, how are things going at The Wooden Rose?" he asked after they had settled into yet another set of chairs.

"I'm getting my legs," Gwen answered. "I'm almost done with the course. I think we have three more weeks and then I can see about getting a proper job."

"Don't you have the option of staying at The Rose?" Graham said. Gwen shrugged, knowing that there was a notation that said a student could stay on, should the head-chef offer a position. She doubted very much that would happen and even if it did, she wasn't sure she wanted to stay. She didn't like people digging into her background without her say-so. Alaric may have thought that he cared, may have thought that this was the best way to help her, but she didn't agree. She didn't want her nightmares ever coming to life. She could handle it on her own. A moment later, she realised that Graham had asked her a question and she was still without an answer.

"I suppose. But I don't know if I'm ready to stay in one place for the rest of my life. Besides, there are hundreds or restaurants in London," Gwen said. She shrugged non-committally. "I want to explore a bit.""I understand that," Graham said. He shifted in his seat and folded his arms, making it impossible for Gwen not to notice that his shoulders were very shapely, very powerful. She looked away. This man was the office manager of her patron. There had to be a rule somewhere that forbade such thoughts. And besides, she didn't like Graham all that much. He was rude and cold. Or at least, he had been. Now, he was being friendly and caring and while it was out of character, Gwen didn't disapprove. It suited him.

Gwen's name was called again and she left the waiting room one more time, this time to get her hand set and bandaged. Half-an-hour later and she was free to leave. Graham walked with her, his hands fisted in his pocket. When they were free of the hospital, Gwen took a deep breath and felt her body relaxing.

"Don't like hospitals?" Graham asked, narrowing his eyes slightly against the sun which pierced through the clouds.

"There are worse things out there," Gwen said, "but I've never been a huge fan of them. There's something about the way they smell. Hey, thanks for coming and hanging out with me."

"Sure. I was happy to do it. And I'm glad that you weren't more injured. I can just imagine how angry Mr. Smythe would be with me if you got yourself... I'm sorry, I don't mean to be insensitive," Graham said, grimacing.

"It's fine," Gwen said. "I'm glad I wasn't more injured, too. That would have been annoying."

"Right," Graham said. The two stood there for a moment, the former soldier looking at the bandage on her hand and musing how things had changed, the professional businessman wondering at much the same thing. "Um, if you're not doing anything tonight, there's a gala at the St. James' and I was wondering if, well, you wanted to come with me. As my date."

Gwen blinked, looking up and drawing her eyebrows together. With her good hand, she tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and resisted the urge to rub the back of her neck awkwardly.

"If it's any consolation, I find him to be an annoying bastard," Alaric said. Gwen mentally shoved the memory away, only to have another rise in its place. "Well, I was thinking I would take you up on your offer. About Gwen, I mean. Is there someplace you would prefer to meet?"

"Alright," Gwen said, smiling up at Graham. It wasn't as though he were poor to look at; in fact, with his dirty-blonde hair and sculpted features, he was handsome. As long as he wasn't scowling, he was even more than that. And, if his behaviour at the hospital had been any indication, he was a nice guy when he got over his shyness masked by formality. "But if this is a black-tie sort of thing, I don't really have anything to wear."

"There's a few shops a couple of blocks over. You can put some of Mr. Smythe's money to good use," Graham said, not unkindly. Gwen smiled, knowing as well as he did that she spent only what she needed for food and let the other portion of the weekly allowance sit in the bank. "I'll pick you up around seven?"

"That sounds fine," Gwen said. Graham nodded, smiled, then impulsively reached out and tugged gently at another strand of her hair. She nearly gaped in astonishment, but then he was turning and walking over to his car. She barely heard the "see you later, Gwen" that he gave her but the glance over his shoulder was enough to make her smile.

The hours that Gwen had been at hospital, Alaric spent in the quiet and empty kitchen of The Rose. He had bid the Major farewell not long after finishing his tea. Then, unable to think of anything but the look of shock on Gwen's face as she had espied Major Dalton, he went to the one place where he knew he could be calm. The kitchens.

With all the time that Alaric spent supervising his staff and teaching his students about the delicate art of cooking, he rarely had time to himself to simply create. But every now and again, when things were too bothersome, when he couldn't stand another night of yelling at his people, when his mother called and forced him to talk with his father, he went to The Rose when she was closed and simply spent time cooking.

This time, he was trying out different, lighter dishes for the summer. There was already a summer menu, but he thought it was time to change things up. So he pureed cucumbers and sliced celery into minuscule pieces. He put chicken stock in with the cucumber, added spices, sour cream, making a cold soup. His hands handled the knives as though they were simply an extension of his fingers. His arms reached for the spices naturally, not even bothering to think about what he was grabbing, just knowing that it would be there. And, to complete the picture, he had a quiet symphony playing in the background. He never allowed music in his kitchens during business hours, but sometimes, when he was all alone, the sounds soothed him.

Except this time, Gwen's ghost seemed to be moving around him.

Just because he had decided not to ask Major Dalton about her past didn't mean that it didn't bother him. He was still caught up in the pain that she was feeling. She was still a mystery and he was curious. Now that she had entered his kitchens, it was hard for him to see them without her. Even if she never let him become anything more than a friend, he wanted her around. Alaric knew he was being unreasonable, that he couldn't expect to attach himself to her, to keep Gwen at his side. That didn't stop him from wanting to try.

The cucumber soup was finished and he started reaching for another pan to start on something new. Then, Alaric hesitated. "Damn it," he muttered, gripping the edges of the stainless steel countertops until his knuckles turned white. He took a deep breath, growled in frustration and stalked over to the freezers, determined to at least try and get Gwen out of his mind. He stopped as he saw the dent in the freezers that she had made and closed his eyes, drawing his mouth into a thin line.

She only lives two minutes away, he thought. That did it. Alaric didn't bother to taste the cucumber soup, just threw it into the freezer for later, turned off the lights—he couldn't start cleaning now or he would never go through with this—and left. Only as he was walking up to Gwen's building did he realise that he left his keys right next to his jacket.

With a muffled cry of anger, Alaric leaned his weight on her buzzer and hoped desperately that she was there. He waited. Thirty seconds later, he tried again, muttering, "Please just be sleeping. Come on, Gwen."

"Alaric?" He spun around, bumping his shoulder on the corner of the brick. One of them was chipped, leaving sharp points that jammed into his skin. He winced and rubbed his arm, staring at Gwen. She was standing there in dark jeans and a plain shirt, a garment bag over one arm, the other at her side, wrapped in a bandage. Her light-brown hair was down and seemed to glow in the afternoon sunlight. "What are you doing here?"

"I, er, was cooking over at The Rose and I went outside and I left my keys and..." he trailed off, silently cursing himself. That wasn't what he was doing there and from the skeptical look that Gwen was giving him, she knew it too. "Actually, I wanted to-"

"Can you take this?" Gwen asked, holding out the garment bag. Alaric nodded and took it, noticing again that her hand was bandaged. She took the keys with her left hand, as skilled with that hand as she was with her right. Maybe it was an Army thing. "Thanks," she said, shouldering the door open.

"What did you do to your hand?" Alaric asked, not waiting for an invitation but following Gwen inside and up the stairs to her flat.

"I had a row with a brick," she answered flatly. Was that anger he detected in her voice? "I think you jammed your shoulder into it."

"That explains why it hurt so much," Alaric said. Gwen gave a half-hearted shrug and opened the door to her flat. Alaric followed, swallowing nervously. He had never been to her flat and even though he was holding the garment bag and she hadn't exactly invited him in, this felt like he was taking a great step forwards. The flat was sparse, decorated in a style completely unlike Gwen. He looked at the pictures of the desert on the walls and wondered if they were from her tours overseas.

"Thanks for carrying the bag," Gwen said, reaching out for it. The door remained open behind Alaric and she didn't look all that thrilled to be having him standing there without a by-your-leave.

"No problem," Alaric said. He took a deep breath and told himself that if he didn't say something now, he would never get it out. "Look, I noticed your problems with the Major last night and just wanted to make sure everything is okay. I c—I like you, Gwen, and I just wanted you to know that I'm here for you. And I was wondering if you wanted to-"

"Haven't you intruded into my life enough, already?" she asked, the garment bag draped over a chair, her good hand gripping the back tightly. Furiously.

"What?" Alaric asked, raising his eyebrows in confusion.

"I know all about your meeting with the Major. What, you couldn't muster the courage to ask me? Or you couldn't deal with having a potential psychotic person on your team?" Gwen snarled, rounding on Alaric with fire in her eyes.

"No, wait, you don't understand what's going on," Alaric said, not even bothering to question how she knew about the meeting.

"Don't I? Next time you want to know something about me, just ask. Or, better yet, leave it alone. I don't need your help, Alaric. I don't need anyone's help," Gwen said. She raised her hand and pointed at the door. "Get out."

"Gwen, it wasn't like-"

"I said get out," she snapped. Alaric hesitated for a moment then backed away, knowing the look in her eyes and the tone of voice as though he were looking in a mirror. If he lingered any longer, he imagined she would start hitting him, broken hand or no. Gwen grabbed the door to slam it shut, but Alaric managed to stick his shoe in the way, ignoring the jolt of pain as Gwen attempted to close the door.

"I never asked Major Dalton about your past. I was going to, but I couldn't," Alaric said quickly, before he was injured further. Then, his own temper growing, he turned and stormed away. He left Gwen's building and stalked over to The Wooden Rose, forgetting until he was standing at the door that he had no keys to get in. He yelled in annoyance.

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