O L L I E
Ollie put his computer back into sleep mode and glanced at his watch. It was eleven. He couldn’t remember the last time he placed the fruit order that early, and he was damn certain he’d never managed to place that order and the beef order on the same day. There was now time left in the day that wasn’t there before. Some mornings—like this one—that was a good thing. Some mornings it wasn’t.
“I should have hired someone a long time ago,” he sighed into his hands and allowed them to run down his tired face.
Sloan was only helping in the mornings with prep work, but a few weeks in and she was catching on faster than he could have hoped. Every single thing he taught her got him one step closer to walking away from this place. She was smart—really fucking smart. Yeah, she gave him lip 95 percent of the time, but at the end of the day, he found a way to laugh about it. Sloan was a feisty thing and didn’t allow any of the guys to give her a hard time. Anything they dished at her, she gave it back and then some. Maybe they thought Ollie couldn’t hear them laughing, but he did. It always ended the moment he walked back into the room. He preferred the staff with their noses down and focused on work. He also understood that this kitchen needed to respect Sloan, because someday—if his plan worked—it would be hers.
He spun his phone on the desk, wondering what life away from here would be like. No Mikah, no more memories in Mulligan’s, no need to avoid the office at the bottom of the stairs, no Shelby...
He exhaled with that thought. Was that possible? To finally give up hope that she’d come home? It was definitely one of the main reasons he wanted away from here...and soon. And away meant where? Nowhere near Chicago; that was for sure.
His phone lit and buzzed beneath his palm.
No doubt, it was another text from his mother, clarified by tilting the screen in his own direction. His thumb swiped the screen to read them, even though he knew exactly what the subject matter was going to be.
New Message: Mom (Cell):
You haven’t said yes, but you haven’t said no. I’m expecting you on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
New Message: Mom (Cell): I’m disappointed in you. Maybe Mikah and Kit don’t like being here either. Ever think of that? They still come to be with their family.
His throat threatened to close in on itself. He darkened the screen, feeling nauseated. He needed a cigarette.
From the top of the fridge he pulled down the carton of Marlboros and then pulled a single package free. He’d probably smoke two before starting in the kitchen for the day—one for each holiday that he needed an excuse for. One smoke went to the corner of his mouth with the other tucked safely behind his ear.
As he descended the iron stairs, he knew that getting out of both was wishful thinking. There was no way. He’d have to pick one and the longer he held off on it the better—meaning he would have to show up for Christmas Eve. That worked better anyways, since Mikah wouldn’t be there until Christmas Day. He’d just have to tackle Christmas Eve when it came. Thanksgiving was two days away and he could fake the flu if Sloan could handle the kitchen for a day. He had faith in her to do that if they kept the menu simple enough. They could do a stew or something simple, keeping a limited menu due to the holiday.
He rounded the bottom of the stairs and patted the pocket of his slacks, feeling them flatten. “Fuck!”
With one look he glanced up the steps, decided it wasn’t worth it to run back up them for his lighter, and pulled the cigarettes into his palm. He’d have to hide them if he was going to grab a lighter from the kitchen. Mikah mocking him about smoking wasn’t high on the priority list right now and it really didn’t look good to customers either, even if there were currently only two booths filled with patrons.
Mikah paid him no mind and he returned the same attitude towards his brother. They had nothing to talk about and that meant this day might be salvageable after his mother’s texts.
The kitchen wasn’t busy. They never were the week of Thanksgiving and because they didn’t have coffee to go, Black Friday was either swamped or completely dead. The next few days the staff had been cut in half, which they never minded. Sloan, however, requested being left on as many shifts as she could. No one fought her on that. With classes being on holiday break, she had been working longer hours than anyone.
Today, there was no laughter coming from the kitchen. It actually sounded like a room where Ollie was in charge. Sloan’s knife was hitting the cutting board hard and Ollie knew instantly something with her was off. Her cheek was caved in, making it look as if she was biting at it.
Ollie removed the miniature culinary torch from the wall to take out to the alley with him but stopped when he got close to his new chef. She said nothing and kept chopping, not even acknowledging that he was standing beside her. She was cutting potatoes for the truffle fries—her favorite thing on the menu to make and eat. Not today; today something was wrong.
“Take it easy on the potatoes. What did they do to you?”
Sloan’s knife slammed down to the counter and she took a step back, still unwilling to look away from the vegetable in front of her. The joke Ollie had made had quite the opposite effect of what he was aiming for. Some days he enjoyed pissing her off a little. This wasn’t pissed though; this was something else.
“I need a break,” she whispered almost so soft that he was quite sure she was telling herself and not him.
“Okay?” Ollie questioned, watching her blinks increase in speed. “The potatoes can wait...”
The sentence wasn’t even out of his mouth before she was rushing to the backdoor, pulling her jacket off. She tossed it up to the hook where it didn’t catch. Instead it fell to the floor where she left it.
Ollie received a few shrugs from the guys, who obviously had felt the change in the room too. The one time Ollie wanted them to speak, they all went silent. Useless.
“Todd, take over the potatoes,” Ollie instructed, unsure if his newest chef had fled completely or just needed air.
Sloan didn’t have a coat on, and Lake Michigan wind had been ruthless all week. Chicago was on the verge of its first yearly snowfall. He didn’t see where she had brought one at all; so, he grabbed his own and didn’t put it on. There was a knit cap and gloves in the pockets, if needed.
Ollie opened the door to the alley and spotted Sloan as soon as he did. She hadn’t gone far and had smartly placed herself near the duct where hot air was escaping from the dryer where Mulligan’s washed their linens all day every day. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her legs with her head bowed. Ollie knew the signs of those deep breaths she was taking, having taken quite a few of them out here himself.
Ollie didn’t know if she wanted to be alone or not but wasn’t going to give her the option to choose either. Stupidity wasn’t going to play a factor here—there was one reason she was like this today and it was something to do with Steve and her depression. Ollie dropped himself beside her and then covered her with his coat, which she pulled up to her chin.
“Sorry,” she whispered like someone else would hear them. There wasn’t another person in sight. “It won’t happen again.”
Ollie rubbed his cold hands together for a little more heat, resting his elbows on his knees. “It’s okay if it does.”
He listened to her sigh. He understood more than she knew. The bad days didn’t exactly give you warning. They were not something that you could plan around on a calendar—with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.
“If you...” Ollie stopped himself, not knowing if he should finish that sentence. Sloan and him were on good terms, but their history was a little fucked up. He was ruthless towards her and was about to offer his ear if she wanted to talk. That wasn’t really in the scope of whatever this one-night-stand, student/teacher, co-worker relationship was.
But when Sloan looked up to hear what he was going to say, and he saw just how empty and tired she looked today, he couldn’t stop himself.
“Want to talk about it? Is that something that helps?”
“I...” she hugged her knees tighter and looked off across the alley. “I don’t know. I don’t talk about it. I’ve never...” her head shook no.
That was fine. He could sit here with her and not talk too.
“Can I ask you something personal?”
“Sure,” Ollie shrugged.
Sloan cocked her head and placed her cheek onto her shoulder. Her bangs tumbled into her face—something that annoyed the fuck out of Ollie in the kitchen, but he found it oddly cute as she watched him.
“You said a girl fucked you up.”
He forced a smile that lasted all of a few seconds and clutched his hands together. He had mentioned Shelby to Sloan in a moment of weakness and somehow, he knew it would be brought up. If she hadn’t learned of it from the guys in the kitchen, it would be nice to control the gossip.
“I fucked up first,” Ollie admitted, taking the initial blame. “I chose work over her thinking that her threats of leaving me would stay just that—threats. Until one day I came home and her shit was gone.”
Shelby didn’t understand the life of a chef. You get in while you’re young, you travel the world, you work your ass off and it doesn’t pay off until you get your own restaurant. Ollie worked twice as hard, took more classes, worked more hours, traveled any time he could and left his girlfriend at home. She was ignored. He didn’t blame her for needing out. It didn’t mean that he didn’t love her.
“How long did you two date?”
“Since we were fifteen. She uh, moved to the farm across the road. My siblings were closer in age to each other and I focused on our farm. When she moved in that changed.”
Sloan nodded and shifted her head so that her chin was now on her right knee. It was cold out, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“What about you and your husband?”
“You know he wasn’t really my husband.”
“You married him and you loved him. I’d say that’s a husband.”
Her jaw quivered, but she stopped and collected herself with another deep breath. Maybe he shouldn’t have asked. She said she didn’t talk about this with anyone and he was prying.
“Young,” she finally answered. “There were four of us around the same age in a group home. Hallie, TJ, Steve and me. We were split for a bit. Hallie and TJ went to a school together and Steve and I did too. Hallie and TJ eventually were adopted by two different families while Steve and I were in and out of foster care. We were best friends but nothing happened between us until after the wedding. It was too late after that.”
Ollie couldn’t stop his lips from curling down. He turned away to hide it from her, knowing pity just made things worse.
“How old was he?”
“A month shy of twenty-two.”
Jesus, he was a kid.
“You didn’t do it,” Sloan shrugged. “Cancer sucks. Insurance companies suck even more. They caught it at stage two. It was treatable. Work fired him because he was too sick, and we couldn’t get him on my insurance fast enough. No one was going to pick up a policy with a pre-existing condition. Especially pancreatic cancer. Basically, we married and got him Hospice care.”
Stupidity washed over Ollie and he began mentally cursing the cigarettes in his pocket. Her tossing them into puddles and ripping them to shreds made a little more sense now. It was one thing to dislike smokers and another to hate that they were willingly breathing something deadly into their lungs. Yet a kid who likely did nothing to instigate his diagnosis, died from cancer.
His mouth turned sour at the thought of lighting one up out here.
“You didn’t really answer my question, you know? She left, but you didn’t get her back?”
Ollie shook his head no.
“She moved on about a week later.”
“Ouch,” her face scrunched, causing him to chuckle over a subject that had never once made him laugh.
“How long ago was that?”
“Almost two years.” Felt like a lot longer to him. It felt like a lifetime since he held Shelby in his arms, “I uh, found out she had a new boyfriend during my dad’s funeral, and I couldn’t handle it. I was bad for a while. Too many blows at once.”
“Oh,” she frowned and sat up straight. “Sorry, I didn’t know you lost your dad...”
Ollie held up his hand and shook his head. He had to find a way to leave the discussion at that. “Not your fault either. It just...wasn’t the time or place for it. I see her often and it’s hard. I spent more than half my life with someone.”
“I get that,” Sloan agreed and shivered with a blast of cold air.
He couldn’t blame her; he was freezing his ass off. In a move that he wasn’t expecting, Sloan expanded the coat to cover them both. Ollie looked back to the door, hoping no one intruded on Sloan needing a few more minutes to collect herself.
“What triggered today?” Ollie asked carefully.
He had days like this too and it was never nothing that would set it off. For him, it was nightmares. Sometimes it was more than that, sometimes it was something Shelby would say, or something with the business that would set him off. It was easy and very unhealthy to turn it into rage. Smoking and anger—what a way to cope.
“Todd asked if I was bringing my husband to the holiday party,” she giggled. A sniffle followed that had her gliding a cheek over his coat. “Stupid, right? It was a simple question, and all I had to do was say that I wasn’t married. The answer just got stuck and I panicked. He just needed a head count because his girls are making cupcakes.”
Ollie felt like a piece of shit for not warning the staff. Who would think that someone this young was a widow? Shit, he couldn’t even imagine being divorced at twenty-two. The way she said it though, it implied that he knew she had been married. One person would know that, and it was Mikah. He likely caught the tail end of the conversation with Hallie. He hated Mikah, but even Ollie knew it was an honest mistake. The holiday party for staff was a big deal and always had been. It definitely wasn’t something Ollie ever enjoyed but others did and understandably so.
“I can talk to them, if you want?”
“I’m just not going to go. Easier to say zero than explain my shit-show of a life. I’m not good at those kinds of things anyways. Family things.”
Ollie couldn’t agree more. He still didn’t want her to be left out though. The staff really did enjoy it and everyone enjoyed Sloan.
“Doesn’t have to be a spouse, Sloan. It’s an excuse to get drunk on my dime. Bring your friend Hallie and enjoy yourselves.”
For the first time this morning, Sloan genuinely smiled. The sight of it allowed Ollie to feel like he could breathe a little easier. It didn’t stop that impending doom of the holidays with his family, but this got his mind off of it for a few minutes at least. Maybe hearing how shitty life could get so fast should have made him want to see his family this week, but it didn’t. If he was really honest, he could tolerate Mikah over Thanksgiving. That wasn’t the issue. Knowing his mom would call him on his bullshit, he quickly sent off a text using cold fingers to his mom—informing her that he hadn’t felt well this week and that he would see her on Christmas Eve for sure. It wasn’t far from the truth; it had been eating at him and making him feel sick.
“I’m not ready to go back in,” Sloan admitted. “I tend to burst into tears a lot and this stopped it. I’m still on edge though.”
“You take as long as you need. Todd hates making fries. It’s good for him.”
Ollie dropped his legs out straight and offered Sloan the hat he brought along with the coat. She accepted it, putting it over her bandana, followed by a goofy smile that made him laugh. The blue, knit hat was huge on her and refused to stay above her eyes. She giggled after a few failed attempts with it. Ollie tugged it down a little further in the back and lifted the fold in the front a little higher, finding a beautiful set of soft, green eyes beneath.
“This really did help. Guess talking works for you...eh, Chef?” she cutely smirked.
“Guess so.” Ollie shrugged, feeling a bit warmer with the smile she’d caused him to break into. “Never tried it before today.”