Salty

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14

S L O A N

It was almost five in the morning when Sloan walked through the door of her duplex. So, it was no surprise to her to find the entire place still dark, curtains drawn shut, and Hallie’s door closed. Her car was outside and that meant she hadn’t worked her normal third shift. Feeling the exhaustion of being awake all night, she couldn’t fathom how Hallie managed to work twelve-hour shifts at the nursing home in the middle of the night. Sloan would have found some empty bed to sleep in if that were her profession. Her best friend was probably the sweetest person in the world though, and that meant she took her role of caring for elderly and terminally ill patients very seriously. That heart of gold really failed her when she went to Ollie behind Sloan’s back, and that’s why she flung Hallie’s door open, allowing its knob to bounce off the wall behind it with a noise loud enough to cause her best friend to stir.

“What time is it?” Hallie groaned, rubbing her sleepy eyes while Sloan strode across her room.

“Five.”

Sloan threw open the curtains, allowing the bright pink and orange glow of sunrise to beam through the window. Hallie dove beneath her covers, which didn’t matter at all because Sloan yanked them completely off the bed. She didn’t even care that Hallie was dressed in practically nothing but a see-through, light pink teddy.

“Who pissed in your cheerios?”

“You did!” Sloan yelled, pointing at the culprit in lingerie. “You went to Ollie! You told him about Steve, about all of it!”

“Damn right I did! You quit school because of him!”

“That doesn’t mean you get to tell a stranger who hates me that I committed insurance fraud, Hal! If he tells anyone about that, I could still go to jail! It doesn’t matter if Steve is gone or not!”

Hallie sat up, still groggy, one boob spilling out of her nightwear. Sloan pointed to the rogue tit, causing Hallie to roll her eyes and adjust herself, tucking the freed nipple back into the bust of the teddy. Then, she patted the spot beside her, a wordless way of telling Sloan that they were about to have a chat. Sloan hesitated, wondering why the girl was wearing sexy lingerie when the bed was empty.

“Did you sleep with someone last night? Because if you did, there’s not a chance in hell that I’m climbing into that bed with you until the sheets are washed.”

“I wish,” Hallie muttered, pulling one of her two pillows out from behind her to place against the headboard for Sloan. “My orgasms last night were unfortunately by my own hand. I attempted my new vibrator named The Rocket, which did not leave me seeing stars. Its first mission was aborted, and it blasted its way right into the trash.”

Sloan could live with that. She kicked off her shoes, instantly realizing how badly her feet hurt from being on them for so long, and crawled into the bed. The two girls sat there in silence for a long while, trying to figure out what to say to each other. Fighting for them always seemed awkward and stupid because they knew they’d make up almost instantly. That didn’t mean that it didn’t hurt when Ollie had shown up at TJ’s store. One look into his stunning blue eyes and it was obvious he had learned of Steve. Sloan just couldn’t believe that Hallie had been the one to go directly to him and spill every secret she had.

“Was he still a dick?” Hallie was the first to break the silence, looking to Sloan with a lot of unneeded sympathy. “I can still kill him. He makes it easy. We know where he works and where he sleeps.”

Sloan’s eyes closed and she giggled with Hallie’s giggles joining. Her head dropped to the blonde’s shoulder. She still couldn’t make heads or tails of what had happened last night. It still felt like a dream. Ollie had been more than nice—almost human even. It still hadn’t fully clicked that she took him up on a job offer to be an apprentice. Obviously, she had lost her mind in a moment of weakness. That moment was when he began to plead with her, the same moment that she saw the same hurt in him that she felt every single second of every single day. His guard was down. Hell, it was practically non-existent in that moment. As soon as she agreed, he was all business again, explaining dress code and the benefits package. Ollie acted like he hadn’t admitted to her that a breakup ruined him or that he wanted out of his family business.

“He gave me a job,” Sloan admitted guiltily. “An apprenticeship. TJ is going to hate me when I tell him that I’m quitting as of today.”

“A job?” Hallie’s head pivoted to see Sloan’s face, looking like she was seeing if she heard her correctly. “I needed him to talk you into going back to school, not have you running plates. If this is about the bills...”

“No, I’m being taken under his wing as a chef. It’s not about the bills; although, it will help a lot. He offered me double what TJ pays and it is only if I go back to school. I’ll be working the dinner rush with him every night, I guess.”

“Wow,” Hallie nodded approvingly. “I’m beginning to like toothpick guy. I’d ask if he has a brother, but I already know the answer to that, and he’s a complete dick. He kept,” she held up air quotes, “joking,” and dropped them, “that I was knocked up, because apparently, Ollie has a thing for blondes.”

“You met his brother?” Sloan asked, sitting up again and adjusting the pillow to support her lower, aching back. Ollie hadn’t seemed too fond of him making decisions about the restaurant.

“You’ve met him too,” Hallie clarified. “The bartender that I thought was hot the night you didn’t come home? That’s him. He’s no longer attractive to me. I’d screw TJ again before him.”

Well, that made sense. Sloan vaguely recalled Ollie having no love towards their bartender that night, not realizing it was his brother. Could it be that his brother was a bigger ass than Ollie? Because that seemed very unlikely. Plus, the bartender was very nice to her that night. Although, so was Ollie.

Sloan clutched her head, not knowing what to think. Hallie liked Ollie and not the brother; Sloan liked the brother and not Ollie...most days. Last night was a major exception.

“Those siblings might give me whiplash.”

“As for TJ,” Hallie sighed at the thought of him. “He will understand. He’s an ass, not a jerk. Just like me, he’s got a soft spot for you, Sloan Smith. Don’t be scared to tell him that you’re chasing the dream that we all wanted to see you grasp. No one will ever be mad at you for taking steps forward. It’s the steps back where we get a little testy.”

Sloan faked a smile, sinking further into Hallie’s warm bed. She was nothing if not dependable at taking those steps back.

* * *

Just like the day prior, Chicago’s sky was threatening a wicked thunderstorm. At only nine in the morning, it looked more like nine in the evening. Rain had not yet started falling, but it was only a matter of minutes. The sky was flashing and growling, ready to downpour. Of course, every damn occupant of Chicago was trying to beat it, flooding the streets with their cars before the streets flooded with water. There was bumper to bumper traffic, cars with their lights on in the early morning, honking as if that was going to make the sea of vehicles magically part for them.

“Please, please wait until I get to the store,” Sloan asked of the temperamental sky.

There wasn’t normally this much traffic on the outside of town. This usually meant one thing...there was also a Cubs game today. Basically, life was just throwing as many curves to make her late to Mulligan’s as it could. Nothing like disappointing the guy who hated you on the first day. Disappointing men was going to be the theme today, which was why when she pulled into the parking lot of TJ’s, she couldn’t bring herself to rush in to beat the rain. So of course, the second Sloan got out of her car, the sky opened up and poured buckets. Running didn’t make any difference, because by the time she had passed the store’s threshold, her clothes couldn’t have been holding more water.

Her sneakers squeaked with every step she took on the linoleum floors, alerting TJ of her arrival way before she had approached the customer-free cash register. Apparently, she was the only one stupid enough to go out in this to enter a consignment shop, because there was only one lone customer sifting through the clearance bin of DVDs. Waiting for her to approach the counter, TJ stood with a sympathetic smile and frowning eyes that told Sloan that Hallie hadn’t only talked to Ollie.

“She wasn’t supposed to tell you!” she tossed her purse to the counter and crossed her arms. Her best friend was beginning to drive her more insane than she already was. “I feel terrible!”

TJ tugged on the small beard on his chin and gave a sad attempt at a laugh. “It’s Hal. She worries about you and needed to threaten me to verify that I would not make you feel bad for doing what was best for you.”

That was definitely her best friend. The only girl that would call the ex she hated to make sure that he took Sloan’s quitting without notice lightly. It still hadn’t been her place to tell him. Yes, TJ was a friend, but he was her boss. At some point, Hallie was going to have to let Sloan return to being the adult she once was. Ollie was giving her that chance.

“I had no idea I was getting this position, and it allows me to go back to school.”

“I get it,” he shrugged.

“I’m starting today and I’m a mess,” she confessed to him, looking down at herself and her soaked clothing. Thankfully, she had chosen black and not white to wear today. “In more ways than one.”

“Well,” TJ disappeared beneath the counter and popped back into her vision, now holding a used plastic bag out to her—it was a Walmart bag, but they reused them at the store to bag customer purchases. “Then maybe you should take this.”

Sloan accepted the bag, having no idea what she would find in it. When she peered in, she immediately brought the bag to her stomach in a hug. Her eyes glassed over for the first time today, but she held the tears back. Instead, she took a much-needed deep breath and forced herself to look at TJ. His shoulders laxed at the sight of her.

“I know how much that sweatshirt means to you. Don’t consign his stuff, Sloan.”

Another deep breath was taken. “I owe creditors and Hallie a lot of money. I need to consign it.”

His head shook no. “You already consigned it, and I bought it. Now it’s your going away gift. I better not see any of Steve’s shit in here again. You may need it, but I can’t...”

TJ’s head shook as he trailed off, his eyes fell to the floor. Sloan understood. TJ felt like shit for not being there at the end. He didn’t want to see Steve’s stuff because he couldn’t handle it, just like she couldn’t handle the thought of losing this sweatshirt...or their bed. The Pizza Pizzazz was gone and now this was all she had left. Two things.

“Thank you,” her voice was rocky. She clutched the sweatshirt harder and breathed in deeply, wishing that it still smelled like him. She wouldn’t let it go again.

* * *

Mulligan’s wasn’t open when Sloan had arrived. Not knowing whether to walk a few blocks just to get at the alley or attempt the front door in the hopes someone was actually behind it, she opted for the latter. The rain had only just let up and she was hoping to be inside once it began again. After tapping her knuckles on the opaque glass entry to the restaurant, a few shadows appeared on the other side.

“We open at ten,” a man appeared after he had already spoken the words.

Sober Sloan could see it now, the resemblance between Ollie and his brother. He was a younger version, but held the same facial features—plump lips and sapphire eyes. Their body types even held similar height and weight. Ollie looked less hipster and a little more country with a hint of bad boy. It was the bike and tattoos that added to it. If it wasn’t for the hair that was pulled back into a bun, this man could have been Ollie. She quickly decided that the disheveled hair on Ollie was better than the bun.

Sloan extended her hand, giving her arm a few shakes to clear the droplets that had fallen from the rain-soaked overhang above them. “I’m Sloan. The new...” she paused, wondering what to call herself. “Chef? I think?”

His smile immediately fell. There was confusion, a spark of anger and then possibly some bitterness as his eyes squinted in her direction. He looked up to the ceiling and then back at her.

Oh yeah, these two are definitely related.

“We aren’t hiring...sorry.”

Sloan’s hand dropped before lifting it to adjust the bag on her shoulder.

“I was already hired. Last night...well, no. I guess, that’s not right either. I was hired around one in the morning.”

This felt odd. It sounded all wrong no matter which way she said it, and this now had his interest piqued. His brows rose and then he looked from her up to the ceiling again, as if he could see the man who lived above it.

“Were you now?” he laughed once but it was evident that he didn’t find this funny at all. “Were you both drunk and mid romp?”

Wow.

Her mouth fell ajar. She could just barely shake her head no before Ollie appeared at his brother’s side. He clutched Sloan’s elbow and brought her forward, away from the elements that were threatening to unleash their next round with thunder that made all the old windows of the place rattle. Ollie was just as soaked as she was, leading her to believe that he had been outside a few minutes ago too. The smell of disgusting tobacco told her exactly the reason he had been. He was smoking and she would have likely found him in the alleyway, where just last night she had seen his piles of discarded cigarette butts surrounding the back door.

“I see you’ve met Mikah,” his eyes narrowed at his brother. “This is Sloan. She’s my apprentice. Get her a key.”

“You get her a key,” Mikah’s eyes rolled hard as he walked away from the door. “I’m not your bitch. Shelby is going to have a coronary when she finds out you hired someone without prepping her first. Payroll is going to be fucked, and I’ll never hear the end of it.”

There were no words. What had she gotten herself into? These two held no love for one another—yikes.

Ollie muttered something beneath his breath and motioned for her to walk further into the empty establishment. There was noise in the kitchen already, and the scent of her Mac and cheese mixing with Ollie’s cigarettes. She couldn’t help but feel a little sense of pride mixed with her current anxiety. Her recipe was being used today.

“Ignore him.”

“He’s my boss though, right?” she looked back to Mikah slamming a shot glass down onto the bar. A little early for that, but okay.

Ollie’s head shook no and began walking towards the kitchen door. Sloan fought to keep up. “I’m your boss for now. I run the kitchen. He runs the bar. My sister is supposed to run the marketing and entertainment, but she’s...” his head shook again, seeming to put himself into a conversation that he didn’t want to get into. “She’s just not into this like we are. She just had a kid and that’s her focus.”

“Soooo, if your brother runs the bar, then why does he get a say in your menu?”

Ollie smiled, but it was an obnoxiously coy one. “Good fucking question,” he pushed the door open and motioned her through.

Unlike last night when the two of them were alone, the kitchen of Mulligan’s was now hopping with staff. Three men, two of which who looked similar in age to herself and couldn’t have been older than twenty-five and another that looked like he could have been her grandparent—had already begun prep of multiple ingredients. One was seasoning steaks, another chopping ingredients for what had to be various salads, and one pastry chef that was already going to town on today’s dessert with a masher. Sloan peered to the whiteboard, which showed the day’s dessert to be mini blueberry mousse cakes. That explained the mashing of the fresh blueberries.

Ollie pointed to the three men and said the names Ron, Todd and Mick, but he was moving too fast for her to attach the correct name to the right person. Introductions seemed to be out of the question, and she’d have to figure it out later. She scrambled to keep up with him while more employees entered from the back. There were a few waitresses—distinctive by helpful name tags that were labeled as such. They didn’t stay long and gave no thought to Sloan being in here as they scrambled to the opposite end of the room to get out of the kitchen.

Not one person said hello to Ollie as they entered. In fact, they looked like they couldn’t get out of his way fast enough.

Sloan felt that.

“What will I be doing today?” she asked, darting out of the way of a man who was moving towards the door that led to the bar.

She knew the phrase “dancing in the kitchen” from her years of working as a hostess, but had never experienced it like she was now. Mulligan’s wasn’t even open yet and she was weaving between people just to stay beside Ollie—who couldn’t stay still.

A white coat was extended out to her. “You’ll be observing.”

Fun...not. She took the jacket from him.

“I don’t even get to chop something up?”

“I’d ask you to cut a green pepper, but I’d like you to stick around.”

“Ha...Ha...” her eyes rolled. “Hilarious.”

“That’s me,” he sighed. “The hilarious one. Stay right here. I’ll get the forms I need you to fill out.”

Like she was going anywhere. She was hired for the kitchen and she was standing in it. He didn’t even give her the chance to say yes or no before he had disappeared anyways. She uncomfortably clutched her elbow and peered around the hectic room. Now that the boss was gone, she was getting attention that she didn’t want.

“You workin’ here?” The Chicago accent came thick from the man who had chopped up more types of greens for salads than Sloan knew existed. His big brown eyes looked amazed. This was one of the three introductions she vaguely received and the names had already slipped her mind.

“Errr,” she shrugged. “I guess I’m an apprentice to Ollie?”

He laughed and then the rest of the room did the same.

“Good luck with that,” he turned away to focus on spinach but nudged the man beside him. “Can’t believe he allowed another chef back here.”

“And a woman no less,” his neighbor agreed, equally amazed.

Her eyes rolled harder than they ever had. Sexist men just loved telling women to get in the kitchen until that was the job they wanted. Then their place was anywhere but the kitchen because men obviously could do everything better. Now that Sloan heard that, she looked around the kitchen once more, noting that there was not one female in here with her.

“He didn’t mean it like you’re taking it,” the older man extended his purple hand. Blueberry stains were the worst. “I’m Mick.”

“Sloan,” she took the hand and he gave hers a firm shake.

“Todd is a dad of all girls,” he pointed out the man who had made the derogatory comment. “He just meant that Chef doesn’t typically put women back here with us. Everyone is fine with a woman being back here.”

“So,” she laughed with a closed mouth, wondering if last night was another fluke with his mood. “Ollie is the sexist one then?”

Mick sighed and shook his head no, watching the door and waiting for him to reappear. “I think it was a failed attempt to please his ex. Proving there were no female distractions back here when that wasn’t their problem.”

“Oh.”

Sloan felt awkward about prying for more information, even though she was dying to. Luckily, Ollie reappearing with a stack of papers didn’t even allow her mouth to open to ask for clarification on that. It wasn’t her business, but she also didn’t like that Ollie knew so much of hers. It didn’t feel fair.

Mick scampered off, acting as if they hadn’t spoken a word to one another.

“Ten on weekends and four on weeknights. Same schedule as me. That work for you?”

“Uhh,” she chuckled. “Between here and school, do you ever have days off? I’ll need some of those. It seems like all you do is work, Ollie.”

His chest expanded. His nostrils flared. She’d struck a nerve with him and she hadn’t even been here for ten minutes. She couldn’t even make a semester with him as a teacher; would she make it a day with him as a boss? The opportunity was too good to pass up, and hell’s kitchen was going to have to work for now.

He’s pissed because I noticed that he works all the time?

“It’s best that I work every day,” he replied sternly. “You’ll have every other weekend off, alternating with Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“That works,” she crossed her arms and shrugged.

“And here you will call me Chef. Just like at school.”

Really? That’s what peeved him? His name?

Was there no perk to being a coworker with the man who had been tormenting her for months? This wouldn’t do. He may have apologized for being an ass, but Sloan felt he deserved to feel a little helpless too. Ollie needed a taste of his own medicine, and Sloan was ready to dish it.

“But I’m not a student at the moment. I’m a chef too...as you stated last night. Are you going to call me Chef?”

His thick, bushy brows caved towards his nose. “Fuck no.”

“Ollie it is, then.”

“Chef.”

“Ollie.”

"Chef,” he gritted through clenched teeth.

She held up a finger to stop his temper. His face a shade of red was really unbecoming with the white coat and hat. He reminded her of a candy cane. The impending snicker was stuck in her chest just picturing it.

“My name in this kitchen is Chef!” he barked again, demanding authority.

Such a salty attitude, she thought to herself. It no longer seemed to faze her, and Ollie did not seem prepared for that. Last night he had a soft spot for her. He was like a game now, and Sloan was determined to learn how to bring out a nice side of him. This kitchen needed it.

“That is not your name. It’s Ollie.”

“My name is technically Oliver, and you’ll be calling me Chef.”

“If it is good enough for me to scream out mid-orgasm, it’s suitable for work,” she smirked at the horror on his face, ”Ollie.”

That did it. She cracked him. His mouth repeatedly fell open, his eyes scoped the room to make sure no one heard, and then he took a step forward to keep his next words hushed. He brought her closer too by pulling her arm in his direction.

“Fine. I’ll call you Chef. Keep that to yourself.”

Win!

“Deal, Chef!” Sloan snatched the employment forms and pen from him. She clicked her pen to get started.

“I’m going to regret this,” Ollie muttered, watching her and leaning his palms into the stainless counters.

“Yeah,” she chuckled. “Probably.”

The stack was pretty basic for every job she had ever held. She had filled out enough of them in her short life that she could probably do it with her eyes closed. Emergency contacts—which there was only one and that was Hallie—to W-9 tax forms, 401K, and insurance. She hesitated over that last one, almost feeling the need to promise her new employer that she wouldn’t be abusing it. He knew more about what she had done than she cared for.

“Middle name,” he pointed at the sheet to the blank line between Sloan and Smith.

Okay, perhaps the insurance wasn’t going to be the hang up today. Her tongue rolled across her bottom lip, accompanied by the smallest shake of her head. “Don’t have one.”

“A middle name?”

Was that so shocking? Apparently, by the ridiculously confused face Ollie was making, this was just that. The man was shocked and was trying to register how a person could go without one all these years. This honestly wasn’t the first time Sloan had encountered this reaction, but she almost wanted to laugh at his ignorance of it.

“Is that uh...” he tugged at his messy hair and watched the blank line as if it would populate a name for her. “Is that...”

“Legal? Yes.”

That questioning look only looked more painful. Now she couldn’t hide the grin on her face.

“I’ve just...” he stopped himself to break a smile. “I’ve never met anyone without one.”

Understandable.

“The state doesn’t exactly care what your middle name is. First and last names are the extent of their gifts when it comes to orphans.”

His smile vanished instantly. They always did. Again, this was nothing new. Next would come an unnecessary apology for something he had nothing to do with, and somehow, it would manage to upset her. She’d play it off, of course. This was simple to do compared to all the other bullshit in her life that couldn’t be tossed aside like it wasn’t a big deal—such as her Facebook lacking the normal single, married or “It’s Complicated” status.

“That...” he paused as Sloan braced herself for the apology. Ollie set the paper to the counter and removed his own pen from behind his ear. He struck out the middle name line of the form. “That sucks. You could have written something outrageous on that line. I would have never known the difference.”

That...was not the reaction she was prepared for. Instead of fighting a frown, Sloan cracked another smile and it wasn’t even a forced one. That situation did suck. He was spot on. She liked that he was being witty about it.

“They really couldn’t do any better than Smith?”

“Right?” she giggled, rolling her eyes. “The state of Illinois really needs to branch out. All of my parentless friends’ names were either Johnson, Brown or Smith. I’m just lucky someone there didn’t go for some boring ass first name. Like...”

“Beverly?” his eyebrow cocked high and he placed a toothpick between his teeth, biting it to smile playfully. “Someone who would schedule sex and Lysol afterwards?”

Her laughter boomed throughout the busy kitchen and Ollie’s soon followed. Their discussion from their night together was still as amusing to him as it was to her. He may have pissed her off more than once since then, but it was hard to forget a night that made her laugh so hard that her stomach hurt after so many months of crying. And here and now—this was the man she met in the bar that night. The man from the supermarket was her teacher. She could do this, learn his moods and work with him.

The sound of laughter in this kitchen seemed to be new, because all the men halted, turning with gaping mouths towards their chef. The silent whisks and skillets seemed to not go unnoticed by their boss. As soon as Ollie turned his head, sound returned. There was clanking, stirring, and conversations that were definitely fake. His head shook at his team, but his smile stayed—thankfully.

Ollie turned back to her, rolling his toothpick to the opposite side of his mouth and tucking his hands into the pockets of his white jacket. The casualness of the move sparked something in her belly, causing it to do a floaty roll of its own. She hadn’t felt that since waking up in his bed and wasn’t prepared for it. She fake-coughed and Ollie cleared his throat at the same time. He looked away, picked up the papers and gave the stack a few taps on the counter to make them uniform once more.

“Well, Sloan Beverly Smith,” he teased, “ready to make this kitchen your bitch?”

Her stomach leapt in excitement. Her smile matched. “That name is Chef, Ollie.”

He winced.

This was going to be fun.

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