The Wooden Rose

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Chapter 8

Gwen stared at herself in the mirror, her expression set in a look of annoyance. She had taken a cold shower following her furious encounter with Alaric, got dressed and did her hair with passionate, jerky movements and now she had nothing to do but focus on the feeling of guilt that rose up in her. It was funny how a few simple words shouted as she was ousting him from her flat could make her feel so badly. She had been fuming the whole day and for what? A mistake, that's what.

Growling at her reflection, Gwen tore herself away from the mirror and marched to the kitchen where she poured herself a lemonade, liberally adding ice though she didn't care for it much. It was better than reaching for the liquor cabinet. She knew what drowning her sorrows was like and it was not something she wanted to experience ever again.

Lemonade glass in hand, Gwen slumped against the counter and fingered the material of her dress with the fingers that emerged from her cast. The movement sent twinges of pain up her arm but she ignored it. The dress was pretty, a sort of olive green colour with a high, square neck and sleeves that covered her to her elbows. She didn't fill it out perfectly but she wasn't nearly as skinny as she had been even a month ago. Considering how much she moved, between running and teaching Allison to fight, cooking and keeping her flat in immaculate condition, it wasn't surprising she hadn't gained more weight. But she could have wished for a few more curves on a night like this.

Did she even want to go out? Gwen picked again at the dress and sipped again at her cold drink—she really did hate ice—and sighed. She didn't know. Feeling like she did, it probably would have been better to stay in her flat and watch a movie. But Graham had been so nice to her and she had told him that she would come. Maybe being admired and being amongst splendour and interesting people for an evening would take the edge off of Gwen's temper. She didn't think that hitting a brick wall with her other hand was the best plan.

In any case, it was too late for her to back out. Graham would be there to pick her up in about a minute and unless she developed a serious illness, it looked as though she was going. Gwen finished off her lemonade and dumped the ice in the sink, leaving the kitchen with a mourning look in her eyes as she thought of the evening which lay ahead of her. She couldn't mope around her flat but dancing? She hadn't danced since she was a girl.

Someone rang the buzzer and it became too late for Gwen to do anything. She forcibly shoved thoughts of Alaric from her mind and brought forth the memories of how nice Graham had been to her that afternoon. She was wearing a pretty dress and had shoes that didn't kill her feet. It was going to be a good evening.

"I'll be right down," Gwen said into the intercom, throwing on a jacket and moving towards the door. She found Graham waiting for her, wearing a well-tailored suit that could pass as a tuxedo but wasn't quite. He had a thin black tie around his neck and his hands stuffed into his pockets.

"You look lovely," he said, smiling appreciatively at her. Gwen smiled in return and wondered absently when the last time she had blushed had been.

"Thanks," she said, following Graham as he led her to his car. He was gallant and opened the door for Gwen and she tried to be happy, but there was a tug of annoyance. She was a perfectly capable person, a former Lieutenant in the Special Forces and here was Graham, acting as though she were unable to open the door. She frowned and scolded herself, This is a date. Stop acting like an idiot.

"How's the hand?" Graham asked, climbing into the driver's side and turning on the engine.

"Fine," Gwen said, holding it up and examining the doctor's work. She flexed her fingers as much as she was able and ignored the pain. "So what exactly is this gala for?"

"Some charity or other," Graham answered. "Mr. Smythe was invited ages ago and as his office manager, I am required to go so that he does not spend a fortune on the auction."

"It's an auction?" Gwen asked, brushing her hand over her skirt to smooth it out and looking out the window. She didn't know anything about auctions except that rich people went and bid on things.

"I think so. Don't worry, patrons aren't expected to bid on anything. Just the price of a plate is a couple hundred pounds, so there will be a decent profit for the night." Somehow, his words didn't make Gwen feel any better. A couple hundred pounds per plate? It wasn't so long ago that she had been wandering on the streets with nothing to her name. Now, she was sitting in the seat of a fairly nice Mercedes, wearing a dress that cost nearly half of her weekly allowance, going to play nice with the wealthy of London. Circumstances changed, but such a dramatic change was astonishing to her. And it felt strange.

"I didn't know that you had to buy a plate for me," Gwen said.

"Don't worry, there's always an extra invitation set aside for Mr. Smythe or myself. Since he isn't bringing anyone, he said that it was just fine for me to bring you. Actually, he thought it was a great idea," Graham said, looking over at Gwen and brushing his fingers through her hair.

"If you say so," Gwen said. She was silent for a moment, her gaze fixed on the buildings flying past the window of Graham's car. She heard him sigh and then his hand was tentatively resting on her knee.

"Listen, I'm sorry if this makes you uncomfortable," he said. "I didn't think about how you would feel around such people and... well, I was just trying to ask you on a date."

"It's fine," Gwen assured him, touched that he was feeling uncomfortable for her sake. "I know where I come from and I know where these people come from and I'm grateful for everything that you and Walter have done for me. I just didn't want you so spend so much money on me."

The man driving said nothing for a bit, then tightened his fingers on the steering wheel and replied with a cheeky grin. "You're probably worth it," Graham answered.

"Probably?" Gwen teased. Graham shot her a look of surprise and, realising that she was joking only by staring for a few seconds at the good-natured smirk on her face, smiled tentatively back. Gwen turned her attention back to the people and buildings of London and watched in fascination as the scenery changed ever so subtly the closer they got to St. James.

The two could find nothing to talk about, though the silence became increasingly awkward. Graham already knew about Gwen's work and she had little desire to know about his. She wasn't going to talk about her past and he wasn't going to ask. It was to the relief of both when Graham pulled up to the St. James'. He helped Gwen out of the car—she didn't mind chivalry, but being seen as weak was something else—and the valet took the Mercedes away, leaving an unobstructed view of the St. James.

It was a beautiful building, just the right touches of modern and classic styling, with lights glowing on the people that were arriving. The doormen were standing straight and tall and inside, the gathering of people looked to be magnificent. Gwen took Graham's arm and the two walked up to the doors. Inside, it was even more stunning.

"Well," Gwen said, "I'm definitely out of place."

"What are you talking about?" Graham asked, looking at Gwen in surprise. She shrugged, looking about at all the bejewelled women and their dashing counterparts. "You look like you were meant to be here."

"I feel like I should be somewhere else," she said. "I'm much more comfortable in a uniform."

"Do me a favour," Graham answered, gently pulling her in the direction of a small group of women, all wearing obviously expensive dresses and jewellery that must have cost a fortune. "Relax. You have every right to be here."

"Well, Graham Ruskin," one of the women said, turning a beaming smile on the handsome office manager. She held out her hand and Graham took it, bending over it gallantly. She was a woman in her middle years with the air of someone far younger. Her hair was piled on her head in a tousled yet supposedly elegant manner and she had the make-up to match. This was someone with both money and power and Gwen wanted to edge quietly away. "You know I come to these events just to see you."

"You flatter me, Mrs. Stewart," Graham said with a dignified smile. Gwen wondered if you had to go to a special school to learn that sort of social interaction. If so, she certainly hadn't attended.

"Of course not," Mrs. Stewart preened. "You are so much more fun than these dreary men who stand about talking about their holdings in various companies. And you know how to dance," with a smile, she turned her attention on Gwen. "If you have any sense, you'll hold on to this one!"

"Mrs. Irene Stewart, this is Gwen," Graham introduced with a casual wave of his hand. Gwen smiled as best she could and excused herself from shaking hands with a gesture of her broken appendage.

"Lovely to meet you, dear. Whatever happened to your hand?" she asked, flagging down a waiter and snatching a drink of champagne off of his tray. The man was gone before Gwen could do the same.

"I had a row with a brick," she answered, the story told enough that it was spoken without thought. The woman stared at Gwen incredulously for a moment then chuckled as if it were a very clever joke.

"I understand completely. Men can be such brutes sometimes," she said. "It's a good thing you moved on to dear Graham. Oh, if you'll excuse me, I see Mrs. Cheston and need to go speak with her." Just like that, Mrs. Stewart was gone, gliding off to go talk with another overly made-up woman with glittering diamonds at her ears.

"I don't think I understand what just happened," Gwen said, following Graham as he moved away, threading a path through the crowds of people.

"I'm not surprised. It's difficult to understand her sometimes. I find that the best solution is to smile and drink copiously," Graham said. Gwen nodded and looked for one of the waiters with a passing drink tray. There was no way she was going to get through this evening without one.

"Gwen!" The voice was unmistakeable; Walter Smythe hurried over, looking cheerful and pleased with the general splendour of the evening. He came up to Gwen and, before she could even attempt to greet him, wrapped her in a hug. She froze, every muscle in her going tense until Walter released her. He didn't even seem to notice that she hadn't responded to his hug, just started in on commenting on her dress, firing questions about how things were working at The Wooden Rose, how she liked the flat, what she was going to do when the class ended, what happened to her hand, how she had come to be on the arm of Graham, speaking so rapidly she could barely understand.

"Things are good," she managed when he paused to take a sip of some sort of drink.

"Sir," Graham said, rescuing Gwen by going into business-mode, "have you spoken with Sir Charles Kane yet this evening? He was looking quite seriously into your company and I know that he wanted to talk with you about one of the start-ups he has invested in."

"Kane? An interesting fellow," Walter said, looking about, completely oblivious to the fact that he had been manipulated into pursuing a different line of conversation.

"Yes, though I don't know if he's here yet. You must also make sure to approach Mrs. Worthing; she wanted to thank you for the attention paid to her son's career. I don't believe he's here, but she was standing by the fig tree last I saw," Graham said.

"Certainly. Well, Gwen, it looks as though I've got to make the rounds," Walter beamed, patting her arm. "Such is life when you have money and people want it. When you become a famous chef, you'll understand. Everyone will want to talk with you." Just like that, he was gone.

"I think I'd much rather keep to the background," Gwen said, finally spotting a waiter within reach. She was too late, though. Graham managed to pick up two glasses before Gwen could even move her arm and, with the air of someone bestowing a fantastic gift, he handed it to her. "Thanks."

"I don't know, you seem to manage just fine," Graham said. At Gwen's skeptical look, he shrugged and sipped at the glass of bubbly liquid. "These things take practise is all. With a few more events under your belt, no one will even know that you don't come from the same background."

"Frankly, that's something I'd rather not train to achieve," Gwen said, a scoffing smile on her lips. Graham drew his eyebrows together and looked at Gwen curiously.

"Why not? You look beautiful here and I know you could thrive. After all, you've been through worse, no?" He sipped again at his drink and Gwen lowered her gaze, staring into her own glass. Then, Graham chuckled and put his hand under her chin, looking at her with a strange sort of pride. "It would be like Pygmalion, the play? You would be Eliza and I'd be Professor Higgins. Only you're much more accomplished than Eliza."

Gwen did the best she could to keep her expression neutral. She didn't have to worry, though, because at that minute the gong for dinner sounded and all the guests started streaming into the banquet hall to find their seats and exclaim over their dining companions. By keeping her eyes focused on the many tables, fixated on the task of finding the plate which had the card bearing her name, Gwen was able to keep the rage she felt from showing.

He thought that she was inferior, needing to be moulded into something better so that she could fool the world and be little more than proof of his capabilities. Gwen knew that many women would be pleased to be a part of something greater, taking pains to act differently to be seen as better. But she was not one of those people. She was just fine with what she was, a person who was building her own life. Just because Walter Smythe was helping her make something out of herself did not mean that his office manager could turn her into something to be stared at. She was making her way in the world. Not him. The fact that Graham was even considering such a thing was offensive and infuriating.

Gwen remained silent through the introduction by the man on the stage, through the applauding over whatever the evening's event entailed. She simply sat there while the waiters served what looked to be an interesting meal of poached salmon and roasted fingerling potatoes with french cut green beans in a light muscatel sauce, capers resting on the fish, a lemon wedge beside the potatoes. Only when a man asked her a question over her shoulder did she return to the scene at hand.

"I'm sorry," Gwen said to the man, indicating a need for the repetition of the question.

"Of course. Would you prefer white or red wine? We have a pink Zinfandel, an aged Chardonnay or a deeper Port," the sommelier said. Gwen considered and went with the Port, fully aware of the fact that Alaric would disapprove. She liked Port and she didn't care.

"Are you alright?" Graham asked, sipping at his Zinfandel and raising his eyebrows. Gwen picked up her knife and fork and shrugged.

"A bit hungry," she said, cutting into her salmon. She didn't know why she was hesitant to tell Graham exactly what she thought of him at the moment—normally, she didn't hold back at all—but she didn't care. She was hungry, her mood was souring and it looked as though the evening had only just begun. Besides, they hadn't even started the auction yet.

"Let me know what you think," Graham said, looking dubiously at his own meal. Gwen took a bite and looked around, spying three different meals which looked pre-ordered. She chewed the salmon slowly, swallowed, then sighed and put her cutlery down. It was definitely going to be a long night with such poor fare.

"It's not the worst I've had," Gwen said, considering the potatoes on her plate. The salmon was overcooked and oversauced and, if the wedge of lemon was any hint, the potatoes weren't likely to be much better. "But The Rose does better."

"Don't tell Chef Maurice that," a woman on Gwen's left said, leaning over as if it were a great secret, though her voice spoke to the contrary.

"Is he the head-chef at St. James?" Gwen asked, glad for the distraction into a world she knew. Somehow, she doubted that any of these people were going to start talking war, guns or fighting techniques, so food was as good a life-line as any.

"He's been here for dogs' years," the woman said, taking a stab at her own meal—a chicken marsala with white rice instead of pasta. "I think he came from Italy or Spain or some such place and he supposedly trained at some of the best restaurants in the world, looking for the perfect flavour."

"I'm amazed he ended up in London, then," Gwen said drily. The international view of English cooking was appalling. To her surprise and the mis-swallow of a mouthful of Port, the woman started laughing loudly. Gwen choked for a moment, feeling Graham's hand on her back as she coughed, then looked at the woman in astonishment.

"He's wondered the same thing a few times. But I've heard him say that he's trying to educate the English. He's a friend of my brother's, so we've had the benefit of his cooking many a time. Have you heard of The Wooden Rose, by any chance?" the woman asked. Gwen managed not to choke on this mouthful of wine but she barely hid a snort of derision. Of all the things to ask on her night off.

"You could say that," she said, deciding that the lemon might just be for decoration and spearing one of the potatoes with her fork.

"Well, for years now, Chef Maurice has been trying to either get one of his people in there or steal one of the students that come out of there. Apparently, he and the head chef at The Wooden Rose have some sort of rivalry going on. I couldn't tell you which one was better, but don't say I said so or Chef Maurice will have my head," the woman said. She, too, took another bite of her meal but it was plain that she relished it far more than Gwen. As suspected, the potatoes were flavoured too much with citrus.

"He sounds like quite the character," Gwen said. She started debating with herself on whether she would finish off her food then stopped, horrified. Had she really come so far as to forget the feeling of hunger enough that she could consider skipping a meal paid for by someone else and cooked for her benefit? It wasn't so long ago that she lived on the streets, begging for enough money to buy chips at a take-away stand. She had eaten every scrap of food she had made under the tutelage of Alaric and, faced by the prospect of being elegant and beautiful, surrounded by people who were used to getting exactly what they wanted, she was becoming a snob. Even in the Army she hadn't been like that.

"Yes, rather," the woman said. Gwen started eating properly, ignoring the dubious looks from the woman next to her and Graham's questions about the meal. She wouldn't send it back because it was overcooked. She settled into her meal and sipped delicately at the Port, hoping that the waiter wouldn't come by and fill her glass. This evening was bad enough; she didn't need to be drunk to top things off.

"Gwen is everything alright?" Graham asked as she stabbed a green bean. "You seem out of sorts."

"I've just had a long day," she answered. "And I think the pain medication I was given at hospital is wearing off."

"Do you want me to see if I can find something? Perhaps an aspirin?" Graham asked. Gwen gave a minute shake of the head. "I have to stay for the auction, but... if you're tired, I'll call you a cab."

"Thank you," Gwen said. "I'll finish supper but I may take you up on that."

"Just as long as you're okay," Graham said. He reached out to touch her hair again, making Gwen wonder why he acted as though he had to possess her, keeping in contact with her as much as he could. "I should have thought about that earlier, that you would be tired."

"It's fine, Graham," Gwen said, finishing the last of her salmon. "It was great of you to ask me. I really appreciate it."

The simple statement seemed to smooth all of her escort's ruffled feathers and he went back to his own meal, engaging Gwen in small talk while the other people dined and wined all around them. Gwen finished her food with determination, putting her knife and fork down just as the lights in the hall dimmed and the man returned once more to the stage, this time to introduce the auction. Gwen sat through the introduction and waited until there was a lull before bidding began to slip out of the hall.

"Gwen wait," Graham said, walking swiftly to catch up with her as she left the hall. "Let me at least call you a cab."

"I think I'd rather walk," she answered, tucking a strand of hair behind her ears, suddenly annoyed with it and the way that the dress restricted her movements to something befitting a lady. She wanted to go for a run, the exertion burning any excess anger from her system.

"I can't let you do that," Graham said, putting his hand on Gwen's shoulder. She scowled up at him, the first sign of anger that he had seen. He stepped back half-an-inch then smiled at Gwen delicately. "It's dark and I wouldn't want you to get hurt. If only for the sake of my ease, let me call you a cab."

Gwen hesitated, torn between snapping that she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself and not yelling at the man who had asked her on a date, no matter that he wanted to treat her like a porcelain doll. Her hesitation was enough to let Graham pull his phone from his pocket and dial a number, requesting a cab at the St. James. Now, she had no choice. That was enough to put Gwen over the edge.

"I can take care of myself," she snapped. "I'm not some sort of stupid, useless girl that can't manage on her own."

"I never said you were," Graham said, taken aback.

"Then why do you insist on treating me as though I'm a child, ignorant of all the ways of the world and in need of your help and guidance?" Gwen said, narrowing her eyes.

"You've just been to hospital," Graham protested, though from the alarm in his eyes it was plain that he was fully aware of the fact that Gwen wasn't referring to her broken hand.

"Yes, fine, open the door then. But don't treat me as though I don't know how to act in social situations or in getting home. Because you know something? I could kick your ass and cook it up. I'm tired to people treating me like I'm some sort of fragile thing that could keel over at any minute," Gwen hissed. She snarled and Graham froze his forward advance. "I don't need your cab and I'm going for a walk. Now leave me alone!"

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