The Rose opened its doors to its people at eleven in the morning. There was no one expecting service that day, and the streets were quiet, but that didn’t matter. Alaric carried the crate of fish inside the door, and Gwen did her best to balance the box of drinks on one hip while she held the door. She let it slide shut, moving to set the drinks on one of the gleaming stainless-steel counters. Alaric flicked on the lights, turned on the radio loud enough to be background noise, and turned to survey his domain.
“So do you think we can manage it?” he asked.
Gwen looked around and folded her arms, settling into a stance that was somewhere between military and casual. “I think so. We’ll have to start the dishes now, but we can definitely manage it,” she said, fighting the temptation to lean into Alaric in favor of moving to the fridge and rummaging around. Alaric, sighing and sweeping his dark hair out of his eyes, folded his sleeves back and began to work. He turned the radio louder to cover the silence between Gwen and him and started cleaning vegetables to put in the roaster.
It had been like that for weeks. Things weren’t cold between Gwen and him, just…empty. Sure, they still kissed, still slept together, but apart from those few moments in the privacy of a bedroom, it was as though the two of them weren’t dating at all. They had nothing to tell one another that was new because they worked together. They had lost whatever spark was in their romance. Jack claimed it was just that they were past the honeymoon stage, but Alaric doubted that. Even when they’d been heady and wanting to jump each other at every moment, they’d been arguing more than romancing. Gwen’s fire against his own raging inferno was part of the spice that kept things interesting and alive.
Now, it was as if they’d lost it. Only neither one of them wanted to acknowledge the fact.
Alaric believed it was that they were being too nice, trying not to step on each other’s toes while they spent most every hour of the day together. Ever since he’d moved into Gwen’s flat, that was how things had been. As though they were two indifferent roommates who shared a bed at night and led separate lives during the day. Except they worked together. It was so frustrating.
Gwen gutted the fresh flounder they had gotten from the fish market by the docks. She used a knife quickly and precisely, a skill more reminiscent of her military background than her training as a chef. She pulled out the bones and deposited the innards in a metal bowl with the head and tail, leaving fillets that were ready to be marinated and set away in the refrigerator for later. Without a word, she grabbed the pan in which the fish would be cooked and started on the marinade, pouring the blood orange–infused olive oil over the fillets and drizzling a cranberry-pear balsamic over the mixture. With a few spices—rosemary, oregano, a hint of dill, and dried basil—rubbed into the tender flesh, the fillets were ready to be set away. She did that and returned to the kitchen, leaning against the counter and feeling dissatisfied.
Alaric was standing there. Right there. A scant few feet away from her, chopping celery into fine pieces. His scent was still in her nose from that morning, when she’d woken with her nose buried in the crook where his shoulder and neck met. And she longed to reach out and touch, just to touch. That would be enough to satisfy her and put a smile on her so-often aloof features. But she hesitated and held back. Why? She wasn’t sure. Maybe it was because she was afraid he would pull away and look at her as though she was interrupting the sacred rituals of the kitchen. Yet they used to do more than that in the kitchen of her apartment. Something had changed.
No matter what Jack had said about the honeymoon stage (Gwen had a sneaking suspicion that he’d said the same thing to Alaric), she was convinced that it was something else. Maybe Alaric had grown tired of having her around all the time, quite literally. She tried to spend a few evenings out a week, even if it was only to go for a run or see Allison, so that Alaric could have his time to himself should he choose. She still went on her morning runs—alone most of the time, though there were a few occasions when she could convince Alaric to come with her, but that had happened less frequently of late.
It could also be Gwen herself that was the problem. She thought that her issues with remembering her time in the military, especially the accident that had taken her out of active service, had ceased. The nightmares that she had suffered from were only intermittent, more nuisances than actual nightmares. And she didn’t tense up when Alaric sneaked up on her, startling her with a quick hug around the waist or nipping her ear gently. It was far from perfect, of course. She still got tense and angry when he tried to change something around, such as moving a picture of the desert that she had taken while on tour to a different spot on the mantle to accommodate a picture of them. The thought had been lovely, but she’d still brooded over it for hours, days even, until she’d finally moved the picture back.
Yet those moments of anger, their wild arguments that left Gwen wanting to hit something very hard, were what made things so exciting. The challenge was trying to gather the energy from the arguments without actually hurting Alaric. Somewhere along the line, not only had the arguments tapered off until they no longer existed, but the romance in their relationship had all but disappeared as well. Gwen still didn’t know why.
But damned if she wasn’t going to fix it.
Speaking of conspiratorial plans, her phone made a beeping noise from her jacket pocket. Gwen jerked, glad that she hadn’t been messing with any food. Alaric looked up and raised an eyebrow. Gwen wanted to reply with, “Sorry, just my phone,” but that would be compliant and familiar. Instead, she smirked and blinked slowly, languidly, seductively before turning and walking over to her jacket.
Alaric was stunned. What the hell was that? he asked himself, swallowing involuntarily. It was not quite completely out of character for Gwen, but it was close. It wasn’t like her to keep secrets anymore. Not after she had told him what had gone on with her old team in the army. Just then, the movement had not only been secretive and seductive, but it had been just like old times. Alaric’s desire rose in his throat, and he swallowed it down. He couldn’t do anything now; he was right in the middle of putting the celery in a roasting pan.
Gwen saw the surprise in Alaric’s eyes and did her best not to feel disappointed when he didn’t do anything but return to his celery with a determined work ethic. She pulled out her phone and checked the messages.
Allison: Operation Old Age executed. You want me to drop it by now?
Gwen: No, thx. I need to loosen A up before that’ll work. Just bring it by later?
Allison: No prob. Good luck on the loosening. I find a good chocolate helps. Especially melted chocolate.
Gwen blushed at the last suggestion, no matter that she was used to lewd remarks and all, being around a kitchen full of fairly young people and having spent more than a few years in the military with a bunch of guys. She shoved her phone back into her jacket pocket and turned to Alaric.
“So,” she said, sticking her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. “What’s next?” She knew exactly what was next. He should have known that she knew exactly what was next. But he didn’t, so he looked up from chopping some pecans into manageable pieces long enough to blink at her. And slice his finger open.
“Ack!” Alaric yelled, dropping the knife and stepping away from the counter. Rather than get blood everywhere, he stuck his finger in his mouth.
Gwen rushed forward, concern in her eyes.
“Gowey, iznuffink,” Alaric mumbled around his finger, not quite sure why he wanted Gwen to move away. Apart from the splitting pain in his finger, it was really nice, the way that her body looked in those jeans, pressed just about as close as she could get.
“Shut up and let me look,” she barked, all military and first aid. Alaric scowled, noting that the blood he was keeping from dripping on the floor was flowing too quickly to be a minor cut. Gentler, Gwen held out her hand and looked up in Alaric’s eyes. “Come on,” she said. “Just let me see.”
Alaric sighed and pulled his finger out of his mouth. It was messy, and blood was welling out of the cut. Gwen took his wrist, her touch like a spark on his skin, and pulled him over to the sink.
Gwen turned on the water and ignored Alaric’s hiss of pain. The water washed away the blood and let her look at the cut. She whistled.
“Don’t do that,” Alaric said, looking away as though he didn’t want to see how badly he had mangled things. “It just makes things worse.”
“Sorry,” Gwen said, “but you really did a number on your finger. There’s a whole pad of skin that’s missing. Just keep it under the water there, and I’ll get the first aid kit, okay?” She didn’t wait for a confirmation, just walked away and into the back storage area, trying to remember where Jack kept the first aid kit. Finally, she found it, wedged behind a half-empty box of cloth napkins. She pulled it out and jogged back to Alaric, trying to hold back a laugh as he looked at his hand. His eyebrows were puckered with worry, and his lips were tightened in a straight line. There was a single strand of dark-blond hair hanging in his face, charging the expression with a sort of pathetic helplessness.
“It’ll be all right, won’t it?” he asked, turning toward her in desperation. Gwen couldn’t help it; she let out her laugh. Immediately, she knew that was probably the wrong thing to do in that situation. Alaric’s worry melted away to anger. He scowled, and his lip curled in the beginnings of a snarl. “Oh, excuse me for not being seriously injured like you have been in the past. I don’t tend to enjoy breaking my hand on bricks or getting blown up,” Alaric growled. As soon as his words left his mouth, he pulled away, the worry back. “Damn it, Gwen, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It wasn’t your fault.”
“Shut up, won’t you?” Gwen said, chuckling openly now. There was that spark, that flash of anger that came when Alaric wasn’t tiptoeing around her, trying to forget her past. She held out the first aid kit, and when he took it with his free hand, she leaned forward and kissed him. Thoroughly.
Alaric responded with surprise at first and then an eagerness that astonished him and made Gwen purr in the back of her throat.
Finally, she leaned back and took the first aid kit from him, setting it on the counter. “You’ll be fine,” she said. “You just need a decent bandage and some extra care, and things should be just fine.”
“So I can still…cook?” Alaric asked, his voice deeper than it had been a few moments ago. He hadn’t meant for it to sound dirty, but at Gwen’s lidded look, he realized just what he had insinuated. After that kiss, though, it wasn’t surprising. His desire was pounding in his chest, stronger than before. It was as things had been before they’d turned into cold nothingness, monotony, and no romance. Only this was felt more profoundly for the lack.
“You can still cook,” Gwen said, taking a bandage and wrapping the wound after cleaning it with an alcohol wipe. Alaric winced at its touch but let her do what she must. He watched as she wrapped the slice tightly with the provided bandages and then wiggled his fingers experimentally. His hand felt lumpy and clumsy, but it was functional.
Gwen watched. “Maybe I should do the rest of the knife work for the day.”
“I have to start on the Cornish hens in any case,” Alaric sighed. He turned, and just like that, the distance was back. Both mourned for it, and both weren’t quite sure how to bridge the gap.
Alaric prepared the Cornish hens, having Gwen chop whatever was needed. She prepared her pasta dishes and a soup made from some stock before putting the flounder fillets in an oven and then starting on various dessert dishes: a chocolate torte, a candied fruit cake, some cinnamon-sugar cookies, and an apple-agave cobbler. For the entire day, with the food in front of them, neither Gwen nor Alaric spoke about anything other than what needed to be done. And the silence seemed colder than ever.
At around five, after the oven went off signifying the cake was done, Gwen and Alaric stood back, looking at what they had done. Alaric flexed his hand, still feeling clumsy despite having gotten somewhat used to the bandage.
“We did well,” he said, glancing over the array of food. It was enough food to feed an army, or at least, something close to it. There were three different main courses, five different side dishes, and a whole slew of appetizers, not to mention desserts.
“Yeah,” Gwen said, twining her arm around Alaric’s waist in an attempt to ward off the feeling of vast loneliness that had been cultivated throughout the day. “We did well.”
Alaric responded to the touch with one of his own, putting his arm around her shoulder and pulling her close, closer than they had been in such a long time. Gwen turned into him and pressed her nose into Alaric’s shirt, smelling the aromas of the day as well as something baser, more primal. It was the scent that she had woken up to, and it was the scent that she never wanted to give up.
“I love you,” Gwen muttered, saying the words for the first time in weeks. Once the phrase had started sounding so repetitive and emotionless, both she and Alaric had stopped saying it, though both knew it to still be true. It just hurt to say such impactful words when things had been off. Now, though, the words felt right and homely. So Gwen buried her face deeper into his chest, fisting her hands in the fabric of his shirt and said it again, “I love you.”
Alaric’s heart swelled at the words. It reminded him of what it was that he had been missing all this time. The moment earlier with Gwen was mere play compared to what those words, uttered by her sweet voice, did to him. He did love her. He loved everything about her: the way that she looked just after a run, when the ghosts that she had been carrying were miles away; the way that her hair clung to her skin after a shower; the way that her eyebrows drew together ever so slightly when she was working up to a shouting match; the way that her stance changed when she was defending someone she loved or something she cared about. All of that was classic Gwen, and Alaric doubted that he could have done without it. In fact, he had been so worried about hurting Gwen that he had done his best to avoid anything that might get on her nerves. Then the easy conversation had slipped away, and here they were, acting like lovers meeting after months of separation. They weren’t quite sure what to do with one another.
“I love you too,” Alaric said, kissing Gwen’s head.
She hummed in pleasure at the response and tightened her grip on him.
“I think we have about an hour before anyone is meant to be here,” Alaric continued, starting to move and pulling Gwen along with him. “Plenty of time, wouldn’t you think?”
“Jack explicitly said that we couldn’t have sex in the storeroom,” Gwen said, laughing easily.
“Who said anything about the storeroom?” Alaric asked, reaching out to touch her jaw, her hair, anything. “I have keys to Jack’s office.” He expected, after being so cheerful just a moment ago, that Gwen would be more than happy to go along and have a quickie on the couch. But she just stood there, her eyes widening ever so slightly, her entire being tense and…embarrassed?
“I’ll have to get the locks changed, then,” Jack said.
Alaric whirled around and stared at his manager and friend.
Jack stood there with his hands in his pockets, his posture casual and a look of mild reprimand plain on his face. “Besides, your apartment is just across the way. Couldn’t you go have a quickie there?”
“Your office is closer,” Gwen cut in, cocking a hip and smirking mischievously.
Jack coughed modestly and then sighed deeply. “I came early to see if you two needed any help,” he said. “Obviously I was mistaken. Of course, now I can’t leave you two alone here, so you’re going to have to give me something to do in any case. How about setting up the dining area?”
“Fine,” Alaric grumbled, feeling grumpy now that Jack had ruined the moment. Jack nodded and walked out of the kitchen into the main dining area of the Wooden Rose. Alaric muttered unkind things under his breath and began to follow. Only, Gwen stopped him, turning him around and kissing him soundly, her hands roaming lower and lower until—
“Whoa! Whoa, there, love,” Alaric said, removing her hands. “We can’t do that now.”
“Killjoy,” Gwen said. “I think we could probably find a way.”
“And where would you have learned such things? The military certainly didn’t teach you that,” Alaric said. He paused in his moving to the door and looked back at Gwen with a worried and slightly curious expression. “Unless they did?”
“No. I learned that from a rather determined chef I know,” Gwen said.
Alaric opened his mouth to argue and was cut off by Gwen running past him. “Little minx,” he mumbled, following her through the door and into the main area. What he saw made him stop and stare openly and not even feel ashamed for doing it. Gwen was standing there still as a statue, a gentle smile plastered on her features. She had her arms wrapped around her stomach, and there was something in her manner that bespoke simple joy.
“I love Christmastime,” Gwen said, speaking but not turning to face Alaric or Jack, who had stopped to look at the woman as well, taking pleasure in her own pleasure. “There are so many lights and everything is so beautiful.”
“Yeah, and everyone goes out to spend money they don’t have on credit cards they can’t afford for people they don’t even like,” Alaric said. “The only people that actually do well at Christmas are the businesses that pander to these greedy fools who don’t care one way or another about the spirit of the holiday.”
“You’re being cynical and a curmudgeon. I like the holidays. People are nice for no reason other than to be nice,” Gwen retorted. “And families get together after long separations, and there’s so much hope in the air. So I don’t want to hear one more word against the holiday. Got it?”
“Got it,” Alaric said, holding up his hands in surrender. Gwen nodded firmly and turned to Jack, who handed her a tablecloth. Alaric took another tablecloth, and the three of them began to set things up for later. They managed it so that there was one great table in the middle of the room with chairs set around so that everyone could sit and have enough room. The food that didn’t need warming lamps was set out on the table along with a wide selection of drinks that people could choose from. When the last place setting was put out, forks straight and knives in the correct spots, someone knocked on the door.
Gwen turned and saw Allison, carrying a case and grinning happily, her blonde hair curling around her shoulders and flecked with moisture from the mist in the air. Gwen opened the door, and Allison came in, shaking some of the water off her coat. “Wow,” the petite blonde said, looking at the setup. “This place looks wonderful! Nothing like my restaurant.”
“That’s because you work at a place for people who are too modern to care about things like proper Christmas decorations more than the weirdest lamp they can get from somewhere halfway across town,” Jack said, leaning in to hug Allison around the crate. “Merry Christmas, Allison. Glad you could make it.”
“So am I. I managed to convince my manager that we didn’t need to be open on Christmas Eve,” Allison said. “Oh, and this is yours, Gwen.”
“What is that?” Alaric asked, watching as Gwen hefted the crate in her arms and carried it over to the bar. She didn’t answer but merely raised her eyebrows and looked at Alaric. “Come on. Can’t you tell me?”
“It’s a Christmas present, that’s all,” Gwen said, doing her best to shrug it off nonchalantly. It didn’t work.
“A Christmas present, eh?” Alaric said with a half growl, catching the scent of a secret. If anything, that was one way to get him interested. “Can I see?”
“You’re not going to wait, are you?” Gwen asked, sighing as Alaric blocked her way away from the bar. He shook his head and folded his arms, grinning. Things were back to normal. Better than normal. And now there was a Christmas present? What better way to tease Gwen and prod her into mild annoyance? She was happy that way, him teasing her, her teasing him. “Fine.”
With a wrench of muscles that was incredibly impressive to Alaric, she pulled the cover off the crate and fumbled around with whatever packaging was inside. Then in a whirl, she turned, a bottle in her hand. “Merry Christmas,” she said, extending the bottle with a sheepish expression on her face.
“Is this…sixty-year-old scotch?” Alaric asked, taking the bottle reverently.
Gwen nodded, trying not to grin too widely.
“Gwen, you’re the best. This is wonderful! Thank you.”
“You deserve a good gift. After all, you got me a job,” Gwen said. “Now come on. You can drink that later, in private. Right now, we have more guests arriving and some spiced eggnog to drink, Jack is putting on music, and I want to dance.” Gwen extended her hand and locked her eyes with Alaric’s. “So,” she said, all pretenses dropped, only pure longing and love in her eyes, “will you dance with me on Christmas Eve?”
“Absolutely,” Alaric said, and he took her hand. They turned into the gathering of people and looked forward, never back. The pain of these last few months was vanished, the hope of what might come building things up between them. The spark that was there and had been dimmed was lit again. Some things never went out. Especially not at Christmastime.