Salty

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13

S L O A N

“Sloan, you’re a widow...”

The word made her wince. Sloan looked away from Ollie, not wanting to give him any sort of satisfaction by showing him just how much she hated that word. His strong but delicate grip on her wrist loosened and yet, he didn’t let go. Rather, the pads of his thumbs repeatedly brushed her skin to sooth her and prevent unwanted tears from spilling.

“Sloan?”

“Don’t pity me,” her voice betrayed her and cracked. “It’s not what you think.”

“It’s exactly what I think,” he practically mumbled. “I’m not here to pity you. I’m here to make this right. I understand now that you did not know who I was when you came into my bar that night and I’m sorry. I’m sorry for making you despise the night we shared when it was a big step for you.”

That last sentence hit her hard, leaving a sour taste in her mouth. There’s only two people that would understand why that night was a big step for her. TJ left this lot without ever having seen Ollie before in his life. That left one person to hunt down her one-night-stand and Sloan had never felt so betrayed in her life. She had no right to tell him anything about Steve and knowing her best friend, she didn’t hold back on details. Ollie was right when he said a minute ago that this was exactly what he thought it was.

“Hallie went to you,” she practically growled. “After I told her not to.”

“Don’t be upset with her,” Ollie sighed, ruefully. “She did the right thing and you could have told me about Steve. I would have understood.”

“We broke the law,” she argued, feeling herself go even more lax in his hold. “It’s not something I share and especially not with the dickhead teacher who makes my life a living hell. Why would I tell you?”

Sloan didn’t feel Ollie release her wrists or even notice until he was brushing away tears from both sides of her cheeks. The corners of his lips lowered further and she didn’t know if it was the pity he was trying to hide or if what she had just said had stung. She honestly wasn’t sure she cared either way.

“It’s not breaking the law if you loved him the way Hallie explained. Anyone would have done the same.”

Love came later. Love came when it was too late.

Sloan’s shoulders quaked as she began to fall apart in front of Ollie, the exact person she never wanted to show any weakness to. It just gave him ammunition for a war Sloan had no interest being in. The last thing she was expecting was for his arms to wrap around her, offering his chest as a warm place to sob into. She clutched the lining of his leather jacket so hard that the cold, rough zipper pained her hands. The harder she cried, the tighter his arms became and she had no idea how badly she had needed someone else to tell her that what she did was understandable and comfort her. Someone that wasn’t Hallie, who was there for all of it.

Ollie quietly held her until she finally was able to take a few deep breaths to stop herself.

“I’m sorry,” she released her hold of his jacket. “I’m a mess and I didn’t mean for you to get caught up in it.”

Sloan backed away, trying to release herself from Ollie’s hold, but he didn’t budge from his spot. He only dropped his arms in order to cup her face and brush away more of her fallen tears.

“Stop apologizing,” he attempted to smile and failed miserably. “That was supposed to be my job tonight.”

“I’m not going back to your class, Ollie. I don’t care what Hallie told you. It was a sign that I wasn’t meant to do this.”

Ollie audibly exhaled, removing his hands from her completely. His sapphire eyes darkened, losing the sparkle they held just moments ago when he still was holding her. The loss of the contact made her feel annoyingly lonely. She didn’t like that even though she hated him, he had an effect on her. She was not someone who was dependent on attention—or at least she wasn’t before Steve. As if she didn’t like herself enough, this was making it worse.

Ollie turned away, walking back to the motorcycle that was parked in the middle of an otherwise empty parking lot. She took another deep breath and picked up the set of car keys that she hadn’t realized she’d dropped to hold onto his jacket. Of course, they had landed in a small puddle from the afternoon rain, making them dirty and gritty between her fingers. That was the luck she had and it barely fazed her as she selected the correct key. She unlocked the door and had it open a mere inch before it was pushed shut again.

“Nope,” Ollie reappeared, holding out a helmet with one hand and holding the door of her car shut with the other. “Take a ride with me.”

“What don’t you understand about me being done with that school? I’m not your problem.”

“I’m a pain in everyone’s ass and I’m not about to change that now after almost thirty-five years of being awesome at it. I will not take no for an answer.” Ollie’s smug smile made her breath hitch. He lifted the helmet and dropped it over her head, minimally adjusting it to fit her. “You are going to take a ride with me on that bike, get some fresh air, and loosen up. I want to talk to you about the school thing and also something else but I want you clear headed.”

The set of keys in her grasp was taken from her. Ollie relocked her car and then shoved her keys into the pocket of his jeans. That was a place she definitely was not going.

“Ollie...”

He was correct in being a pain in her ass. He only confirmed it as he dragged her by her arm towards the large bike. Lifting one leg to swing over it, Ollie straddled the seat before turning the key and bringing it to life. It roared as his hand revved its engine, forcing Sloan to gulp loud enough that had the bike not been on, he would have heard it.

“Text your little friend and tell him that I haven’t abducted you,” he laughed deeply. “He’s going to panic when he sees your car still here.”

TJ wouldn’t be back until morning and there was no way Sloan was staying at Ollie’s place ever again. She would call a cab or Uber if she had to and that was only if she got on the bike with him. She wasn’t sure she was prepared for that. The thing was huge, loud, and utterly terrifying.

“I’ve never been on a motorcycle, Ollie.” Sloane eyed the bike cautiously and took a step back. “Nor have I ever wanted to.”

“And I never apologize,” he offered his hand out to assist her. “There’s a first time for everything.”

Sloan stared at his open hand, holding her own to her chest. This was panic-inducing, but there was something in his sapphire eyes that was daring her to get on.

“Trust me, Sloan.” His hand summoned her forward and she felt like she was caught in some Aladdin moment. Only instead of a magic carpet, there was a flat black motorcycle with glossy black flames painted over it. “I’ll go slower than I normally do.”

That didn’t ease her mind any.

How fast does he go on average? she wondered.

Inhaling a breath, she took his hand and swung her leg over the bike’s seat. Her stomach knotted with anticipation as he prepared for their ride. Ollie reached behind him, grabbing both of her arms and wrapping them around his middle, forcing her breasts to press up against his hard back. This was way closer than she ever wanted to be to him again.

“Don’t let go,” he glanced over his shoulder and chuckled.

Not a chance in hell.

Ollie kicked up the stand and slowly inched the bike towards the edge of the parking lot. Sloan’s eyes pressed shut tightly and soon she could feel that they were on the road. Once the initial shock wore off, there was an exhilaration of the rumbling machine beneath her with the breeze of a late fall night. She opened her eyes, seeing Ollie’s hair blowing wildly in front of her. A jacket would have been helpful, but the warmth coming from her driver was more than enough. It was likely she was holding him way tighter than she needed to, but his comfort was the last thing on her mind right now.

Ollie stayed relatively slow. Sloan could tell he was holding back on his speed. Perhaps on the way home she would have the guts to tell him to go a little faster. Right now, this was perfect. They weaved through late night traffic in inner Chicago and it was fun that he was ignoring the rules of the road to get to their destination faster. Every time Ollie had to stop, knowing the bike wouldn’t fit between two vehicles, he always leaned back into her and asked if she was doing okay. For an asshole, he was now overly concerned for her wellbeing. That was Steve’s doing and it changed nothing. She would not let anyone pity her for her husband being dead. She didn’t let TJ and she sure as hell wouldn’t let Oliver Mulligan.

It was past midnight when Sloan realized where they were parking the bike...Mulligan’s. The smile she was hiding behind the helmet on her head faded, her belly filling with regret for getting on this bike. He had taken her right back to the scene of their night of sexual escapades, the last place she wanted to be right now.

Ollie drove past the restaurant, which gave Sloan a little hope that quickly faded when they took the next right and parked behind the building in a long alleyway that was only lit with one light. Great, she was about to be murdered by her least favorite human on the planet.

“Why are we here?” she asked when Ollie killed the engine.

He removed himself from the bike and then removed the helmet from Sloan’s head. Her already messy hair was now a catastrophe and she used both hands to try and fix it.

“No rapturing tonight,” he offered his hands out again with a laugh that Sloan couldn’t get used to. “I told you, I want to show you something and it is right on the other side of this door.”

Her brow lifted and she took both his hands for help off of the bike. Her legs felt numb, almost like jelly, and they wobbled uneasily when she took her first step. Ollie grabbed her hips to steady her, his laughter once again filling a very quiet alleyway in a loud city.

“You’ll get used to that.”

A side glance caught Ollie’s stare as his lips formed a hard line. No way was she going to get used to that because it was a onetime deal. Well, other than when he needed to take her back to TJ’s to get her car. Ollie fell quiet, just as Sloan did after his comment, while he pulled his keys from the bike and used a different one from the ring to open the door beneath the lone light.

Sloan followed Ollie into a dark room that he lit by slapping his hand to an obviously familiar spot on the wall. Now illuminated by fluorescent lighting, the kitchen of Mulligan’s was beaming back at them. Stainless everything—from counter tops and cupboards, to appliances and lighting fixtures—filled a large room of black tiled walls and white tiled floors. A white board hung high beside the fridge, informing staff of tomorrow’s specials with instructions from their chef. Sloan recognized Ollie’s terrible handwriting from class.

“You know,” Sloan felt herself giggle for the first time in over a week as she pointed to the white board. “I didn’t realize the famous fries I had ordered that night were yours.”

Ollie grinned, his dimples caving deep into his cheeks, as he dropped his leather jacket from his shoulders down to his elbows.

“You insulted them.”

“You insulted my knives,” Sloan countered, running her finger across the clean surface of the prep table.

“For good reason,” Ollie argued. “Those knives have to go, Sloan. They’re an accident waiting to happen, and you’ll need all of your fingers if you plan on being a chef.”

Sloan leaned her hip into the stainless table in the center of the room and folded her arms over her chest. Those knives were as good as she could do without the means to purchase anything better. Her lack of money was not something she was going to discuss with him tonight, as it was none of his business. Just like Steve was none of his business.

“I’m not going back,” Sloan released a winded sigh. “So, no problem there.”

“We’ll see about that,” he muttered.

Sloan watched Ollie glide around his kitchen with ease, retrieving various items. One of which, was a green pepper. He tossed it in her direction where she caught it before it collided with her shoulder.

“Julienne it and I will replace fifty percent of the lab you failed.” Ollie motioned to a cutting board and a chef’s knife that he had placed on the counter. “We’ll call that my apology for accusing you of cheating.”

Frowning, Sloan placed the pepper on the table and shook her head no.

“Oh, cut the shit and just cut the goddamn pepper already,” his eyes rolled, sternly. “Don’t be a pain in the ass.”

“You’re fucking bossy, you know that?” she argued.

Ollie became smug, grinning mischievously and retrieving the pepper once more. He jerked Sloan’s arm free from its crossed state, positioned her hand with the palm up, and then smacked the pepper into it.

“It’s my job to be bossy. Cut the damn pepper please.”

Sloan’s eyes narrowed, knowing he wasn’t going to allow her to leave until she cut the stupid pepper. She slammed it to the cutting board and began to slice it as he had asked. Ollie moved to the opposite side of the table, leaning into it with a toothless smile while watching carefully.

“Saying please doesn’t make you less of an asshole, you know?” she asked, dropping the knife beside her work and then picking up a piece of pepper to bite into. She recalled swearing off green peppers just last week, but she really did love them.

Ollie reached across the table and grabbed a piece for himself, still smiling proudly while chewing because she had given into his demands way too easily.

“I never said I was going to be less of an asshole. I apologized for being an asshole about treating you the way I did about our night. This isn’t about that.”

“What’s this about then?”

Ollie didn’t answer right away. Instead, he strode across the room and removed a white jacket from its hook. He then tossed it into her arms before pushing himself up so that he was sitting on the large metal table.

“Cook for me.”

“Excuse me?” Sloan felt all the color drain from her face. “No. Hell no!”

“Why not?” he shrugged. Sloan wanted to smack the grin from his face. The dimples were cute but they were becoming annoying. “You want to be a chef, don’t you?”

Did she still want that? Looking at the crisp, white chef coat in her arms, Sloan felt queasy. She liked cooking and she was starting to think that wasn’t enough to warrant being a chef. Ollie wasn’t the only problem at school. Her peers felt so much more advanced than she was. Some had traveled the planet to study foods and work with some of the greatest chefs in the world. Sloan made good mac and cheese on a stove that didn’t always work.

“Don’t you?” Ollie asked again.

Sloan nodded her head, suppressing tears once more. She didn’t want him to see her cry again. Losing it once in front of him was more than enough. She cried into his chest tonight for Christ’s sake.

“Cook for me. Anything you want.”

“You’re a knife skills teacher.”

“So?” his right brow arched high on his head. “I’m also a four-star chef.”

“Why do I need to cook for you to prove my knife skills?”

“You already proved your knife skills. You gained back half of that grade. Now, I want you to cook for me.”

“But why?” she asked again, becoming more frustrated with Ollie by the second.

“Because I’m hungry?” he irritatingly smirked, allowing his feet to dangle from the table. He looked like a child and was beginning to act like one.

Obviously, Ollie had no plans of taking her back to her car anytime soon. She was going to have to make him something if she wanted out of here. The only thing she could think of was the recipe that got her into the program. It was quick if she made it on the stovetop without baking it, and it was very likely that he had all of the ingredients in the kitchen already. The lobster could be discarded. The mac and cheese was fine on its own and she knew the recipe by heart.

“Where’s your salt?”

“What the hell is with your fascination of sodium?”

“It’s for the water, asshole!” Sloan selected a pot from a hook above her that appeared to be the similar size to the one she used at home. “I need a pinch of it for the pasta water! Get me some salt!”

“You sound like a chef already,” he chuckled, dropping his feet back to the floor.

That time she smiled.

***

The room smelled of a delicious blending of various cheeses. Sloan had found the kitchen very easy to use once she located everything she needed. Ollie had the room organized to perfection, which really didn’t surprise her. He gave her full reign of the kitchen and stayed out of her way. The only time he spoke up was when she asked him questions of where various items were located. As hard as she tried not to, she repeatedly glanced over her shoulder to gauge his reaction, but he was like stone, showing no emotion at all as he watched carefully. It was anxiety-worthy; yet, for some reason, she no longer cared what he thought of her skills. Now she was more worried about being judged for Steve. Was this his version of pity?

“You really aren’t going to eat with me?”

Sloan was too tired to even think about eating. She had worked with TJ all day on inventory and was now drained after a lot of fresh air and cooking.

“No.”

Ollie blew on the pasta and took another bite, holding the bowl directly below his chin to prevent making a mess of the stringy cheese. It didn’t stop it from clinging to his chin, unbeknownst to him. She wanted to use her thumb to swipe it away and knew better. Touching him in any way would be a mistake.

“How will you know if what you made me is good?” his eyes lifted from the bowl, vibrant and bright blue. It was hard to see this version of him after hating him so much since their first day of class. This guy gave her whiplash when he became playful like this.

“I know it’s good,” Sloan’s eyes fell back to the floor as she leaned against the cool fridge.

“How do you know that?”

“Because your second forkful was bigger than your first.”

She looked up when he didn’t respond, seeing his dimples once more. Ollie nodded once, took another bite and set the bowl down to the counter. He used the back of his hand to swipe away the cheddar dangling from his chin.

“You’ll need to work on efficiency, but that will come with time once you become more familiar with my kitchen. I’ll be more interested in how you react when this place is full of staff and waitresses are tossing orders faster than you can think.”

“Wait,” Sloan’s stomach twisted unpleasantly, watching Ollie stride across the kitchen to the white board. ”What?”

Why is he talking as if this is going to happen again? Does he mean at school? He’s the knife teacher; he won’t be seeing her cook again ever.

Ollie picked up the eraser and wiped the board of tomorrow’s menu. Sloan’s eyes widened and she began shaking her head while walking in his direction.

“How do you normally cook that?” he asked once she arrived beside him, his hand holding the blue marker and ready to write.

“With white truffles and lobster in an oven,” her head was still shaking. She reached out and held his wrist, preventing the marker from connecting to the board. ”Why?”

The whites of his teeth appeared, and even though she had his hand on his wrist, he used his strength to begin writing.

White Truffle Lobster Mac & House Salad was now written at the top of the board. Her lungs felt like they were expanding to her throat.

“You’re going to come work for me,” Ollie capped the marker and dropped it back into the metal cup beside the board. “Starting tomorrow. I want you here at eleven. Then you can work dinner shifts with me after your classes. I’ll help you study as we work and will not tell you what’s on tests or give you any answers, keeping this professional at school and work.”

“What?” her head was still shaking. “I can’t work for you! I’ve never worked in a kitchen before! I’ve only been a hostess and not gonna lie, I was a shit one.”

He laughed, bobbing his head as if agreeing. “Sloan, this is in both of our favors. You want to be a chef? Here is your chance. Come back to school, get your degree, learn the basics. I will teach you what you really need to know for the day that I walk out of here and you take over this kitchen. This is not my dream, it’s yours. I want a place where I can make decisions without my brother’s negative input holding me back out of spite.”

Sloan was stunned, rendered speechless. She couldn’t cry, she couldn’t laugh in his face, she couldn’t even move other than her eyes dilating to twice their usual size. She couldn’t even vomit even though her stomach was knotting so harshly that she could have.

“Other than your obsession with salt, you have the palate for this,” he continued stroking her non-existent ego. Her stare was fixated on his lips because they were speaking sentences that she couldn’t comprehend. “Come work for me as my apprentice. I’ll pay you double whatever the consignment shop pays you.”

That would be twenty dollars an hour, she told herself, trying not to have a stroke at the thought. I could pay so many bills, I could pay back Hallie, I could help buy our groceries...

“I made you one dish,” she motioned to the empty bowl, finally finding her words and thinking rationally again. The money made no sense when she had no skills whatsoever. “You know nothing about my palate, Ollie!”

“I knew your palate the moment I saw your cart of groceries,” he countered and pointed to the bowl. “And that’s delicious. I can’t imagine how good it will be if we bake them in single-portion bowls.”

Sloan’s knees felt weak again, just as they had when she got off the motorcycle an hour ago. She leaned her elbows down to the counter, placing her face into her hands that still smelled of cheese. This felt like a really weird dream and she needed to wake up. She didn’t even look up as she heard Ollie stirring around the kitchen, opening a drawer and shutting it again. None of this made sense.

“Is this because of Steve?” Sloan looked up, just as Ollie put a toothpick into the corner of his mouth. “You’re pitying me because you found out I have a dead husband. That’s why I’m being offered a job that, before tonight, wasn’t available?”

The toothpick straightened in his mouth from him biting down on it. He took a few heavy breaths before he shook his head no, his eyes falling to the floor.

“I’m sorry you lost your husband, Sloan. I really am. I’m fucked up from a breakup that happened years ago, and I can’t imagine losing someone and then never being able to see or talk to them again.”

Sloan swallowed hard, biting the inside of her cheek to stop herself from crying. She figured there had to be a reason why a guy as gorgeous as him refused to kiss the women he slept with. There had to be a reason why he was such an asshole to everyone around him. There was something about the way his eyes hooded that made her think there was a lot more to it than that though.

“We are all a little fucked up,” his throat cleared and he removed the toothpick to roll between his finger and thumb, watching it as he did. “I see a lot of me in you and that’s why you’re getting this job. I believe you have the potential to run my family’s kitchen. Offers for aspiring chefs don’t come around like this often, and I need this as much as you do. I want out of here. It’s not pity, it’s convenient for both of us.”

Convenient? Working with someone who made her miserable? That didn’t seem possible. There were two very different sides of Oliver Mulligan and how was she supposed to know which one she’d really be working with?

“Sloan,” he caught her attention again, his eyes pleading with her as his head gave a little shake. “Take this. I’m sorry for being an asshole. You need to take this job. I need an out and you need an in.”

Sloan looked around the kitchen once more and to Ollie’s empty bowl that was once full of her mac and cheese. She hated to admit it, but working in the kitchen tonight with him, with appliances that actually worked, was more fun than she had experienced in a very long time.

“Please?” he pled again, gripping the table top until his knuckles were white. “I need to get away from here.”

She couldn’t believe it as it happened, but her head was bobbing with an unspoken yes.

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