Salty

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19

S L O A N

With the first day of winter came warmer weather. The Midwest really couldn’t make up its mind when it came to seasons anyways. Where just two weeks prior sat almost a foot of snow, the yards were now back to displaying grass. Not warm enough to pass on a coat, but definitely warm enough that it didn’t feel like Christmas was around the corner. The blast of warm air had every family around town rushing to put up their outdoor Christmas decorations. The entire street lit up at night—some houses twinkling, some with nativity scenes, some with just a wreath on the door and a tree in the window. All with the exception of one townhouse that fell right in the center of it.

Hallie had no decor for the simple fact that she had always spent Christmas at home with her family. Sloan had neither family or decor. It wasn’t like she would buy a tree even if she could afford one. It was a holiday that was basically never experienced. Steve and her had grown up in the worst sorts of foster situations. It was hard enough to get food that was expired or clothes that fit without holes, let alone receive an actual gift. Growing into the adults they now were, she also couldn’t afford to give them. Spending the holiday with Steve was easy, because he understood. They didn’t do silly things like gifts. They played card games and would maybe binge a show on TV. If they were really lucky, they would spend the holiday at whatever jobs they held, ignoring the day altogether.

This year would be harder. Just like Thanksgiving, Sloan was preparing for the worst. And unlike Thanksgiving, she knew a certain chef would not be taking her mind off her loneliness. There were no hours to be put in at Mulligan’s on this holiday, because family restaurants close for family time. She’d be home, alone and depressed, and likely killing an appliance trying to cook her way through the day.

It never felt right to celebrate a holiday when you didn’t grow up with them anyways—you’d think she would have learned to get over that over the years. And that meant that it definitely didn’t feel right to attend a Christmas-themed party.

“Whoa,” Hallie’s hand guided the bedroom door further open so she could take in a better view. “Who are you, and what did you do with my best friend?”

Sloan bit the inside of her cheek and took in her appearance again from the mirror attached to her dresser. The knee length cocktail dress she was wearing may have been purchased secondhand from TJ’s store, but there was no denying that it fit her like a glove. Just barely sitting at the edge of her shoulders, the neckline slightly scooped across her chest, keeping the dress sexy but classy at the same time. Long sleeved and completely covered with black sequins, the polyester beneath the shimmering pieces was just barely seen but cherry red, giving it the slightest Christmassy feel. Surprising not only herself but her best friend, she was wearing a tamed red lipstick, eyeliner, and even had in some simple faux-pearl studs in her ears.

“Sloan, you look to die for.” Hallie made a complete circle around her friend, eyeing her from top to bottom, feeling the sequined sleeve with her hand. “This is stunning on you.”

Hallie had been ready to go for over an hour—dressed festively in a black, sweater dress of her own with knee-high boots. Meanwhile, Sloan was dragging her feet. The Mulligan’s Christmas party for the employees was the last place she wanted to go tonight. Not because it was being held at the very place they all worked but because she was avoiding someone and had been for almost two whole weeks. Thirteen days of swapping shifts, dodging looks, and keeping to herself while craving Ollie’s knowledge in the kitchen. He was allowing her to do it too. The pit in her stomach hadn’t stopped aching since leaving his bed. Tonight, there was no way to avoid him.

“I don’t know what to do with my hair,” Sloan confessed, allowing her confidence to dwindle a smidge while continuing to take in the sight of herself. “Or shoes. I feel stupid.”

“Well,” Hallie scooped up Sloan’s long brown hair, bundling at the nape of her neck. “You don’t look stupid. Unless stupid hot is what you were going for.”

That’s not what she was going for, but the dress hugged what little curves she had perfectly. New, something like this would have been well over a hundred dollars from a department store. It had officially become the most expensive thing in her possession, and it was for a party she’d do anything to avoid right now.

“I’ve got some black heels you can wear. They’re high though. How tall is the guy you’re trying to impress?”

The pair met eyes in the mirror, with Sloan frantically shaking her head no. This was not to impress Ollie or any other man.

“Do you have a thing for toothpick guy?” Hallie giggled, picking up a small, black clip from the dresser top. She seemed to have figured out both the shoe and the hair situation. “Tell me.”

“No,” Sloan frowned, looking into the mirror and seeing the bed she had once shared with Steve directly behind her. “The dress is just for me.”

* * *

Mulligan’s was just as crowded on this night as any other. Instead of the normal Chicago crowd, the room was filled with employees and their families. Children dressed in their holiday best, spouses and significant others of coworkers—it was actually impressive to see just how many people actually worked for the small family restaurant. Everyone seemed to know each other and were already huddled in groups, holding fancy cocktails and laughing, wishing others a Merry Christmas and other holiday greetings with a friendly hug.

Never having felt any sort of holiday cheer, Sloan knew she was going to be completely out of her element tonight. She dropped her coat from around her shoulders, displaying her backless dress. Thankfully, the other women in the room had also gone with knee-length cocktail dresses. That ended only a smidge of her anxiety for the night.

The restaurant itself appeared to have a small makeover overnight. The vintage look with modern updates were now hidden behind holiday decorations that were minimal but gave it a chic feel. It had a woman’s touch to it—there was no way that Ollie or Mikah came up with all of this on their own. They would have had to speak to one another, at the very least. Every sconce on the wall now had a tiny wreath around it, every table held a lit candle surrounded by a glittery poinsettia, white Christmas lights just barely made the space beneath the counter of the bar twinkle, and even various Christmas trees with simplistic ornaments—such as red, green, and white glass orbs. Topping it off, the stage now held three tables, long in length with red and white table cloths and runners, that were holding tonight’s buffet.

“Cute!” Hallie removed her own coat. “I guess I’m not used to being in here when there is Christmas music instead of a band!”

Ollie would hate that comment, Sloan thought. She’d worked with him enough to know that the bands were brought in by Mikah under the agreement it would be weekends and nights only. He had a nasty habit of not sticking to it, and it seemed to be a way to poke at his brother.

Unable to help herself, Sloan scanned the room for the eldest brother, coming up short. More relief, but also a ping of unease. She hadn’t worked at Mulligan’s long and only knew a few people from the kitchen—and they had kids. She mostly stuck with Ollie, taking in as much learning as she could. Mikah was now behind the bar and Ollie was nowhere to be seen.

“Who are you looking for?” Hallie grinned wickedly, annoying Sloan.

“No one. Where do you want to sit?”

It wasn’t the answer her best friend wanted, but it was the one she was going to get. The last few weeks had been more than messy, and for probably the first time ever, Sloan was keeping what had happened to herself. It shouldn’t have happened—is what she kept reminding herself. They agreed that they wouldn’t get carried away again, and they couldn’t even last the night. It’s not like Ollie didn’t agree. He had been allowing her to distance herself, after all. The unease in her stomach never let up when she thought about it. It made her sick to think that she slept with the same man twice in less than a year after Steve, and it made her sick not being near Ollie for this long when they had become so close. It was hard to talk about Steve with anyone, and Ollie listened. It was hard to talk shop with Hallie, and again, Ollie listened. Not to mention how hard he could make her laugh. And then that laugh just circled around to feeling guilty again for being able to smile at all this year.

“Is this an open bar?”

“Yes,” Sloan’s head bobbed wildly, needing a drink in the worst way. “And we need to take advantage of it.”

Hallie led the way while co-workers began their greetings to Sloan, complimenting her dress, wishing her a good holiday, and introducing them to their families. It was torture. She would have introduced Hallie, but the blonde was already a drink in by the time Sloan made it to the bar. A bright green appletini with a cherry on the rim was waiting for her. A cocktail that should have normally been sipped, it went down way too quickly while she did another scan of the restaurant.

“Would you like another?” Mikah grinned, seeming to like that Sloan enjoyed her drink.

“God, yes,” she muttered and took a seat at the bar. Hallie did the same, seeming to notice that a night right here was what she needed.

“You two should get food,” Mikah pointed over to the buffet that was still steaming. “Trust me. The chicken goes fast. It’s only made once a year, and it’s probably the only reason we ever have a good turnout.”

Taking Mikah’s word for it, Sloan finished her second cocktail before the two left the bar to enter the buffet line. The smell was nothing short of heavenly. Cute little notecards that sat within miniature holly wreaths displayed the menu. Mulligan’s Champagne Chicken, seasoned baby reds, green beans almondine, goat cheese balls with honey drizzle, various fruits and salads, and even a very normal looking mac and cheese for the kids of the staff—Ollie had outdone himself. Everything he made was to die for, and this did not look like an exception. She made sure to take a little of everything and advised Hallie to do the same.

By now, the restaurant was filled, with every table and booth being accounted for. This was fine, as Hallie and Sloan could eat from the bar. There were a few other waitresses eating from here too, and another blonde woman that Sloan had never seen. She apparently was a staff member, because she had no problem going behind the bar to get more supplies, such as more silverware for the buffet. Plus, their spot at the bar meant endless drinks coming their way.

“Oh my god,” Hallie’s eyes pressed shut tightly as she took her first bite. She began to moan approvingly.

“That good?” Sloan giggled.

“This chicken...oh god,” she repeated. “I think it is about to give me the best orgasm I’ve had in months.”

Mikah had just sat down a fresh cocktail when she’d said it, and was now awkwardly standing there with wide eyes staring at her best friend. Welcome to a life with Hallie—the girl with no filter.

“What?” Hallie looked between Mikah and Sloan. “It’s been a rough year!”

“Clearly,” Mikah chuckled as he walked away with his head shaking.

Sloan’s eyes were rolling as she took her first bite, knowing the chicken couldn’t be that good. Instantly, she was proven wrong. Juicy, melt-in-your-mouth, perfection was bursting with flavor in her mouth. The sauce was delicate but still absolutely divine paired with the poultry. She knew Ollie was a good chef, obviously, but this was a whole new level of what he was capable of. The entire piece was gone before she could realize that she was devouring it. Once finished, she peered to Hallie’s plate, seeing hers was completely cleaned free of food too.

“Wow,” she whispered to herself. That was nothing like the trendy menu Ollie normally stuck to.

“Sloan!” a familiar voice sounded behind her.

Turning in her seat, Sloan was greeted by one of the few coworkers she actually did know and spoke to on a daily basis. Todd approached with his entire family in toe. Sloan had heard a lot about his girls while working in the kitchen with him, but now, she was finally seeing them all and just how much they looked like the perfect mixture of him and his wife. Each were holding one of their zonked-out twins, with their eldest daughter holding her dad’s leg. Oh how Sloan could relate to that shy feeling tonight.

“Two are out and one is about to be,” Todd joked. “I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas before we head out.”

“Oh, you too!” Sloan said awkwardly. This was the part of the night she knew she was dreading.

“Sorry, this is my wife, Maisy,” he nodded in her direction.

Sloan knew this was his wife from the picture he kept above his prep station. The pictures of his daughters, however, were all from when they were born. The twins were now at least two-years-old, and his oldest had started kindergarten this past fall.

“Nice to meet you, Sloan.” Maisy whispered. “I hear a lot about you.”

“Oh?” she awkwardly giggled. “That can’t be good.”

“No, no,” she laughed. “All good. In fact, I think you’ve made that kitchen a better place to work for a lot of those guys.”

Was it really that bad before? Sloan highly doubted that she had much to do with whatever change had happened. Ollie definitely had his moments back there with the staff, but that was par for the course in a kitchen. Maybe there were a few more laughs from their chef now than when she had just started. Maybe there was a little more chatter than there was previously. There was still definitely a shift in the room whenever Ollie entered and left though.

“And I’m so sorry to hear about your husband. Our thoughts and prayers are with you this Christmas.”

Sloan’s smile fell. And even though a years-worth of training had told her to lift the corners of her lips again to pretend, she couldn’t do it. This was the one fear she thought wouldn’t happen tonight. The brink of an anxiety attack already had her in a sweat.

“Thank you so much,” Hallie answered for her, setting a hand on Sloan’s shoulder. “She appreciates it.”

“Yes,” Sloan agreed with a bobbing head, removing herself from her seat. “Thanks. I’m sorry, but I need to use the ladies’ room.”

Hallie’s hand couldn’t even grab her fast enough. Knowing the ladies’ room was not an option, because Hallie was bound to follow, Sloan went to the one place she knew she couldn’t. Hanging a left to enter behind the bar and an immediate right through a swinging door, Sloan landed in the safety of the Mulligan’s kitchen.

Her hands were trembling. Her breathing was out of control. Tears were pooling at the corner of her eyes and ready to spring themselves at a moment’s notice. She was not expecting to walk through the door and immediately lock eyes with Ollie, and he looked just as surprised, if not more, than she did.

The entire kitchen smelled amazing, like vanilla and sugar. The prep table was filled with white ramekins, and leaning over them was Ollie--adding a cherry and some edible gold leaf to the top of a vanilla bean Crème brûlée. This was trading one awkward situation for another. The last time they’d spoken, they were having sex in this very spot.

Ollie stood straighter, and pushed up the sleeves of his red and black, plaid shirt. Unlike Sloan, he was not dressed for any sort of party tonight. In fact, he looked just as he did the first day they met in the supermarket, pairing it with a pair of jeans.

“Are you okay?” he questioned, recognizing this look of panic she was currently wearing.

Her head shook no. “Can I help you prep those?”

There was a little hesitation, but eventually, Ollie did nod his head. He went to the backwall and removed her chef’s jacket from its hook to offer her, a kind gesture so that her dress wouldn’t get anything on it. She quietly thanked him, washed her hands, and joined him at his side. Sloan carefully surveyed the other ramekins before understanding the look Ollie was going for. Each one got a single cherry and two gold leaves on its edge. They worked in silence for a few minutes before he finally cleared his throat.

“Don’t tell anyone that I didn’t make the dessert,” he nudged her with his elbow.

The tension she was building in her belly instantly vanished, and she released a small laugh. There was not a doubt in her mind that someone else had made the dessert. There was not a shot in hell that Ollie would be caught baking. She had to agree, it was not her favorite part of being in a kitchen either.

“I’ll carry your secret to my grave,” she joked back. “If you tell me why you’re hiding back here and not out there with everyone else.”

“I’m finishing the dessert.”

“Well, as cute as your dessert looks, it’s really not necessary. So, why are you back here?”

“Why are you back here?” he diverted the question back to her, meanwhile popping a cherry into his mouth.

“Todd’s wife brought up Steve.”

Ollie frowned. “Oh.”

With a nod of her head, she stole a cherry for herself and ate it before leaning her hip against the table. Her anxiety attack was already fading with his help, but she needed her mind off of it. No more detail about why she ran back here was needed.

“It’s just best that I’m back here,” Ollie sighed. “They should actually enjoy their holiday and the party.”

Her lips sank at the corners. “They will still enjoy it with you out there.”

Ollie briefly smiled, but it vanished just as fast as it had appeared. He wasn’t convinced of that. He feels that his staff doesn’t like him enough to spend time with him at a holiday party? Sloan highly doubted that was the case at all. It would be good for them all to see that he is capable of having a good time. He has a great sense of humor that he seems to hide from everyone.

“Your chicken was amazing,” she changed the subject, returning to their task. “That champagne sauce was delicious.”

“I made that recipe with my dad,” he grinned. Her heart sped with his smile. “We bought up every bottle of expired champagne we could find from the year this place opened and made it a tradition.”

“Expired?” she cackled. “Yum?”

“Well, not expired per se,” he chuckled. “Champagne shelf-life is only around five years, but past that, all it does is loses the bubbles, which you lose during the cooking process anyways.”

“Hmph,” her lips curled upwards, liking that tradition.

They worked in harmony, just like they always did back here, until every ramekin was now trimmed with edible décor. She helped him load trays to be carried out to the buffet, which Mikah came to retrieve from them. It was like his brother knew that Ollie was avoiding the main floor of the restaurant. She assisted with what was left of cleanup before finally hanging her jacket on the hook of the kitchen. Maybe she shouldn’t have left her best friend out on the floor alone, but she could hear Hallie’s laugh from all the way back here anyways. Her friend was good at making the best of any situation and very easily made friends.

Locking glances again, it was becoming harder and harder to ignore the elephant in the room. They were avoiding each other for a reason, and this was it. They promised they wouldn’t get caught up again, and they did exactly the opposite.

“Sloan,” Ollie began.

Her head shook no. “We knew what we were doing. Let’s just leave it at that.”

“Okay,” he agreed, tucking his hands into the pockets of his jeans with a frown. “If that’s what you want to do.”

Why did that hurt so bad to hear? The tension was back in her stomach, but this time, it felt self-induced. Was that what she wanted to do? Ignore it? Even tonight, she couldn’t lie and think that she hadn’t enjoyed even this small amount of time back here with him. He looked good, he smelled good, and those were all thoughts she should not have been thinking after just having a panic attack over a comment about Steve.

“Yeah, that’s what we should do,” she said, lying to him and herself.

This room was about to bring on another panic attack, and this time, it wasn’t because of Steve. She took a deep breath a moved herself to the swinging door that led back to the loud bar.

“Sloan?”

“Yeah?” she stopped, just barely making it out. She had to swallow down the lump in her throat.

“That dress is crazy beautiful on you.”

She exhaled, and they shared a smile. “Thank you.”

His head bobbed a few more times, looking anywhere in the kitchen but at her. She took that as her cue to exit the room, because even though she didn’t think it was possible, they had made this situation more awkward than ever.

She found Hallie exactly where she had left her. Her and Mikah were bickering about something. She was too busy panicking to take in a word of it. Instead, she went straight for the fresh drink that was sitting in front of Hallie. She pulled the cherry from it, tossed it to the bar top, and gulped it down in what couldn’t have been more than three or four swallows.

“Whoa,” Hallie’s eyes widened. “Been awhile since I’ve seen you do that.”

Sloan agreed, swiping her mouth to collect the drip that was running down her chin. The door behind the bar swung open again. This time, Ollie was the one to come through it. His teeth were biting a toothpick so hard that it snapped in half as soon as they locked glances again.

“Hal, let’s get some air,” Sloan clutched her friend’s elbow and looked away from his sapphire blues.

“Isn’t that where you’ve been?”

“No,” her head shook. “I really need it.”

Hallie hopped off her seat, ready to go wherever Sloan needed her to be. Behind her, she watched Ollie walk through an entire crowd of his employees unnoticed until he was at the door that led up to his apartment. Not one person wished him a happy holiday or thanked him for his hospitality tonight.

“Are we getting air...?” Hallie lifted her palms. “...or?”

Nope. All of Sloan’s air was now gone. Her head was shaking no. Their talk wasn’t going to make it outside.

“I slept with him again.” The words left her lips before she could even think.

Hallie’s jaw dropped. “Seriously?′ she quizzed. “Toothpick guy again?”

She couldn’t even open her mouth to say yes, but Hallie knew that’s exactly who she was referring to.

“Sloan,” she was now treading lightly, gazing over her shoulder to ensure that no one would hear what she was about to ask. “All my joking aside, do you have feelings for Ollie?”

Sloan held her hand over her mouth to hide her face from giving away any sort of reaction, because she wasn’t going to answer that question either. Hallie knew the answer from that action alone.

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