Salty

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12

O L L I E

“I’m sorry,” Ollie stood from his lean on the desk, his hand hovering over his mouth. “But...what?”

Hallie’s story had left him practically speechless. Those four words were all he could manage. Of all the things he thought were about to spill from the strange blonde’s mouth, that was not it.

Hallie was now eerily silent, pressing her back into what little free wall space this room had to offer. Her gaze refused to lift from the floor. It was for the best, because Ollie didn’t know how the hell he was supposed to react to that.

“It was a decision she made and there was no talking her out of it. I would have never tried either. I think she knew she was going to get her heart broken but didn’t realize just how bad.”

Ollie pressed his folded arms to the top of the metal filing cabinet and dropped his head down to take the breath that he hadn’t realized he had been neglecting. His chest tightened painfully, taking in too much air and letting it out in a loud sigh. It all made sense now and yet didn’t make any sense at all. One thing was certain, he’d fucked up.

“I’ve been fucking terrible to her.”

“Yeah,” Hallie agreed. “You have. The one thing she has left is that school. Her dream guy didn’t work out. Her career needs to. I’m a mess myself and keeping us both above water,” she paused, which caused Ollie to look up from his arms. Her eyes were glassed over, tears ready to release. “I can’t do it much longer. Maybe it’s selfish of me to think that way, but I’m exhausted. All the work I’ve done to get her this far, you tanked.”

The whole situation made him sick.

When the door of the office burst forward, Ollie had never been so thankful to see Mikah in his life.

“Are you going to work today?” he looked down at his watch. “Jason is getting his ass kicked in that kitchen with noon rush!”

Ollie and Hallie shared a look, one that was as if they were both thinking of Sloan and nothing else. He understood why she was depressed but how the hell was he supposed to do anything about it?

“What?” Mikah chuckled and pointed to Hallie. “Did you finally knock one up?”

“Suck a dick,” Hallie countered, folding her arms across her chest.

Ollie tried to withhold a smile when Mikah’s brows lifted. Speechless Mikah was his favorite Mikah and he had half a mind to offer Hallie a job right then and there if she could put up with that whit. He needed to be put in his place more often. It would do him some good.

Hallie lifted her purse from the desk and tossed it over her shoulder. “She works at TJ’s Consignment near the westside.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Ollie took a step forward. “She hates me, for good reason, and I’m not sure I can talk her into going back into the classroom after the way she left. It doesn’t change anything. I can’t give her special treatment.”

“You got through to her once,” Hallie shrugged. “I have faith you can do it again. And if you don’t, I’m sticking with that plan of shoving your toothpick through your dick.”

Mikah laughed and neither Ollie or Hallie found it funny. Instead, Hallie grabbed the front of Mikah’s t-shirt in a tight fist and yanked him further into the office so that she could move past him and out the door.

“Jesus Christ,” Mikah caught his footing just before toppling over and clutched the desk for support. “Where do you find these chicks?”

“Here,” Ollie groaned, dropping his head back down to the filing cabinet. “Mulligan’s Bar & Grill, the one and only. I need to walk away from this place and all the bullshit that comes with it.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard you mention that before.” Mikah responded, bitterness etched into his deep voice. “Nothing like throwing the legacy down the shitter with the rest of your family.”

Ollie didn’t have it in him to fight today. Mikah played the biggest hand in shitting on his family and he loved shitting on his brother in particular. If it wasn’t for their similar DNA, Ollie would deny being related to the prick. They couldn’t be more alike and more different at the same time. This was likely the longest conversation they’d had in over a year and neither of them were willing to continue it. The door slamming signaled Mikah’s absence from the room, lessening the raised testosterone a little.

Even if Mikah didn’t want to hear it, Ollie stood by what he said. Mulligan’s was the only thing keeping the two brothers together and it needed to end. One of them had to walk away from it and Ollie wanted to be that person first, before he got stuck with it. Kit only came around it when it was convenient and none of them were making money on it. Ollie was one of the best chefs in Chicago and was being held back by a bartender that wouldn’t agree to change the goddamn menu out of spite. Illinois was beginning to feel less and less like home.

He sighed heavily, looking around the old office with his lips curling downwards. The desk was filled with pictures of his family. From trips to Wrigley, rides on tractors, Halloween costumes, boy scout camping trips, and even some old prom pictures of him and Shelby. Every single picture held real smiles and candid laughter. It seemed like so long ago that the Mulligan family was actually happy. Now they were all a mess and the only proof left that the life they once knew existed was time-capsuled into this office. He saw it in Mikah’s face too when he had come through the door that they always kept shut. There was a time when the two brothers played under that desk.

Unable to stand it anymore, he slapped the light switch to off, ending the memories of simpler times. He had come to terms with being unhappy on the other side of the door. He was already telling himself that he wouldn’t make the mistake of coming back in here again.

There was a dull ache beginning behind his eyes as Ollie moved across the crowded restaurant. They were in for a busy evening if it kept up like this and Hallie’s little story session about Sloan hadn’t helped one bit. He stopped himself at the bar before walking back into his own kitchen, where Mikah noticed his brother loitering in his personal space.

“What?” Mikah growled, picking up a bottle of Malibu to combine with a glass of orange juice in front of him.

“I need you to make me a drink. Anything. Poor me a shot.”

“You’re working!”

That may be, but his kitchen staff was going to suffer solely because Ollie had a bad day. Clearly, his salty attitude was affecting others and he didn’t want to make a habit of everyone hating him. Sloan hating him right now was bad enough. He could live with Mikah hating him because the hate he felt in return was far superior. This drink wasn’t exactly just for him. It was for everyone that had to deal with him today. The other benefit would be that it would hopefully dull old memories and of Sloan Smith.

“Mikah,” Ollie sighed, feeling his shoulders go lax. For the second time today, he didn’t have it in him to argue. “Tell me you didn’t walk out of that room and poor one for yourself.”

Mikah stilled, his lips forming a hard-pressed line. Ollie knew he was right and pulled a shot glass for himself from the stack to place beside the orange juice on the bar.

“I did whiskey. Grab me another shot glass. I need another.”

“Fine.”

It didn’t matter what he poured him or how many Mikah took for himself, so long as it took Ollie’s edge off.

He wasn’t prepared for any of this today.

***

The outer village wasn’t exactly somewhere where Ollie spent much time. The nice part was that there were some roads that felt more recluse than inner Chicago and it allowed him more freedom with the Harley. The rain had stopped a few hours ago and the roads had since dried. As soon as Ollie had gotten his first job as a head chef, fresh out of culinary school, his first purchase was a Nissan Ultima that was purely supposed to be used for his longer drives home. The gas mileage was a major bonus. The bike however, was constantly calling his name for a ride. He needed the ride to clear his head and allow him to breathe what little fresh air the city had to offer.

Work had been a blur all night with his thoughts focused on Sloan. Two of his fingertips had Band-Aids around them to prove it. He couldn’t get what Hallie had told him out of his head and he wanted to know if it was the truth. Ollie knew it was, but for some reason he needed Sloan to confirm it. Even talking to her again was the reason he needed a clear head.

TJ’s consignment was probably the last place he thought he would actually park the bike. He was just going to drive by it, maybe see if he could spot Sloan through the floor to ceiling windows that covered the entire front of the old building. His stomach was in knots the moment his feet touched back to the pavement of the parking lot. There were two cars sitting outside and he had no clue if one of them belonged to his former student. He’d never even heard of this business before tonight. It was within a long line of similarly-sized businesses, a few pawn shops, a laundromat, and a Thai buffet that looked a little sketchy. All the businesses were already closed and yet TJ’s still had lights on.

One foot at a time, Ollie walked towards the consignment shop, stopping about twenty feet from the doors when they opened to reveal a man and woman just on their way out. She looked exhausted after a night of work, her eyes sunken and tired, her brown hair tied back and messy. She was dressed more casually than he had seen her before, but less homeless than the day he’d met her, wearing an orange tee and a pair of jeans that hugged what little curves she had. When she finally looked his way, Ollie’s chest felt like it was going to burst, holding his breath and unwilling to let it out.

His eyes immediately were drawn to Sloan’s, just as hers did the same in return, causing her to halt her steps while the lights turned off one by one behind her. Ollie’s hands dove awkwardly into his pockets, his chest already tight with regret for showing up like this. Her eyes narrowed with her arms wrapping around herself protectively—and he couldn’t even blame her. He could feel the heat of her hate all the way over here.

When the alarms of the business were set, the man beside her turned, startled to find that they weren’t alone in the lot.

“Sloan?” the man asked, eyeing Ollie carefully.

The stranger’s hand moved to the small of Sloan’s back—a protective measure that was completely unnecessary. Although, something about his hand intimately placed on her, made Ollie take a few more steps forward.

“I want to talk.”

Sloan’s eyes rolled and her head shook. “I have nothing to say to you.”

“Fine, then you can listen.” Ollie shrugged, still keeping his hands in his pockets where they were forming fists. Was this guy really not going to drop his hand from her? Were they a thing?

He doubted that. He just couldn’t picture the bushy curls on top of his head and his beard to be Sloan’s type. It was someone who definitely felt comfortable enough to touch her more than a coworker should. She didn’t even seem to mind, or notice for that matter. She was just trying to move away from Ollie as fast as she could with her human shield trying to keep up.

She began digging through the purse that crossed from one shoulder to her hip, likely looking for her keys, as she walked towards one of the two cars. The man followed her instead of walking to the car adjacent to them.

“Do you want me to take you home tonight?” he asked her, moving his hand to her upper arm. “I will.”

“I can handle him, TJ. Go home. You had a long day. I’ll see you early tomorrow.”

TJ hesitated, unwilling to take his eyes off Ollie or his hand off of Sloan.

“Really,” her head bobbed. She patted him on the back, to stop his glare. “Go home. See your fiancée. He’s no one.”

Ouch. Ollie cringed. He deserved that and yet it still stung.

“Text me as soon as you get home.”

“I will,” she groaned and gave his shoulder a playful shrug. “Have a good night.”

Ollie and Sloan stood together quietly as TJ strode away and it wasn’t until his tan Honda had finally left the lot that Ollie released the fists in his pockets. His hands ached but nothing compared to the one in his chest as he looked at the girl he’d been breaking without realizing it. It was his fault that she looked the way she did and the words he was trying to find to apologize for that were evading him.

“Take a ride with me,” he blurted, taking a meaningful step forward and freeing one hand from his pant pocket to motion to the Harley behind him.

They both looked shocked at what he had just offered because he definitely had not planned that.

“Uhhh?” Sloan chuckled, her brows furrowing. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Especially not on that thing.”

“Don’t diss my bike,” he warned.

“Jesus,” she muttered, her eyes falling back to her purse to continue digging for her keys. “You are the most defensive person I have ever met. I am not obligated to like your motorcycle. Why the fuck are you even here?”

“I said I wanted to talk.”

“And I said I don’t.”

Sloan moved towards the front of her car, removed the purse from over her head, and dumped the contents to the hood. She used a finger to sift through the items until she finally found her keys.

“Sloan, please?” he begged, watching her toss a bunch of random shit back into the bag. “I want to talk about what happened last week. Take a drive with me and let me apologize for being a dick. I won’t apologize for all of it, because I am a teacher and I need to hold you to the same standards as my other students. But I should have never made you feel like shit for the night we had together.”

Sloan said nothing, unwilling to even look up as she selected the right key to unlock her car door. Ollie dove between her and the door, blocking her from entering it and leaving him alone here in this lot. He came this far and would be damned if he was going to let her walk away from him again.

“Ollie!” she groaned and looked up to the sky. She clearly was doing everything in her power not to look at him and he wasn’t going to give up easily. “I just worked a double shift and I’m exhausted. I want to go home.”

“I was an asshole,” he began his apology, holding his palms to the cool metal of her car.

“Ya think?”

“Let me finish.”

“No. Move!” Sloan tried moving beside him and using her hip to push him from his spot but he didn’t even budge. If he wasn’t mid-apology, he would have found this little move cute and maybe would have laughed at her for thinking that she had any weight to use against him. Now would be a very poor time for that.

“Ollie!”

“Take a ride with me,” he repeated calmly.

“No!”

Sloan moved until she was in front of him again and pushed his chest hard. Had the car not been directly behind him, that time he would have likely landed on his ass. Sloan had more strength than he thought.

“Take a ride with me.”

“No!” she pushed again.

That time there was a little pain with her push on his chest. He was ready for her the third time. As she drew back her arms and shoved them forward, he grabbed her wrists. Both of them locked eyes at the feeling of their skin coming into contact with each other’s and Sloan tried to retreat by taking a step back. Ollie didn’t release her, needing her to listen to what he had to say. He put the heat of their skin to the back of his mind, knowing was not the time to overthink their night together.

“Take a ride with me,” he said once more. He didn’t want to sound demanding or upset her further, because now he had an idea of how to make this up to her. “Let me apologize. There’s something I want to show you.”

Her eyes glassed over and within seconds Ollie could see tears threatening to escape. He swallowed hard, hating that he knew the reason why there were there and that he was part of it.

“You didn’t want to apologize before,” she tried to yank her arms free and he only tightened his hold. “Asshole is putting it lightly! You are a bitter, lonely, shit human! Why the hell has that changed all the sudden? Why do you need to apologize to me right now?”

“Because...” he tried to stop her fighting him, but part of him wanted to allow her to beat the shit out of his chest. All those adjectives she used couldn’t have been more fitting of the person he really was.

“Because why?”

Ollie stood from his lean against the car, towering over her as he pulled her wrists upwards to get her to listen. Her glossy and startled eyes looked up to him as his frown finally freed itself. Something in the look they shared told her everything, because her pupils dilated and her lip began to tremble while Ollie’s jaw tightened. Neither of them wanted to say it even though they were both thinking it.

“Sloan, you’re a widow...”

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