Salty

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21

S L O A N

This was quite possibly the dumbest thing Sloan had ever done. Had they not just agreed that it was best to keep their employee/employer and student/teacher relationship professional? Now, they were standing outside his mother’s home, ready to spend Christmas together. This was straight up insanity. It was so bad, that she thought about texting Hallie what she was doing when they were halfway there. She ended up lying and saying she planned on eating herself into a coma while watching Pretty Woman to take her mind off things. Then she shut the phone off so that she wouldn’t get a million calls and texts from her.

Just as Sloan and Ollie got to the porch with their bags in hand, and Ollie holding a basket filled with gifts that he’d clearly wrapped himself, holiday decorations sprang to life around them. The porch—that was a little sketchy to be standing on—was now cutely lit with twinkling lights around the banisters. White icicle lights were hung off the roof of the porch, but were currently dangling when they should have come to a peak with a tiny dormer. It looked as if someone wasn’t tall enough to get them to the tip. The bushes beside the porch were lit with green and red lights, some looking to have failed. A wreath hung on the door they were fast approaching, and a lit tree could be seen from the bay window. Nothing really matched, and yet, this was probably Sloan’s favorite display of lights she’d seen yet. The two-story house itself was white with olive-green shutters, fitting right in.

Sloan elbowed the man beside her and pointed up to the lights that were dangling below the dormer’s peak. “You should fix that for your mom.”

His dimpled cheeks appeared, making Sloan laugh. “You two are going to get along just fine.”

The door opened, displaying a petite woman in pink pajamas. The dimples he got from his mom, and that was adorable. “She’s not blonde!” his mother cackled.

“Ma!” he groaned.

Sloan’s grin only widened, watching him turn the color of a ripened tomato. Oliver Mulligan gets embarrassed. Pink cheeks and all! He was so right—they were going to get along just fine.

“Chef, do you have a type?” Sloan teased, nudging him. He cringed.

“Oh, he certainly does! If blonde and batshit crazy is a type, that’s his!” Penelope ushered Sloan in. “And you are a breath of fresh air! I’m Penelope, but you can call me Penny! Just drop your bags right there, and Ollie will get them to your room.”

Sloan did as she was told, watching Ollie’s head shake at his mother. “Mom, this is Sloan. We uh,” he paused, not knowing how to answer explain their relationship. “We work together. She’s a chef at Mulligan’s.”

“Welcome, Sloan,” she cooed, wrapping her tiny arms around her embarrassed son. “I’m so happy you were able to get him to come home.”

***

The Mulligan farmhouse was quite possibly the cutest, homely, place Sloan had ever been in. It was apparent that the childhood that she had growing up was the exact opposite for Ollie. Nothing in it was new, but it was still charming as hell. Old wood floors creaked as you walked them, and floral wallpaper lined the walls of the entry way in shades of pink and cream. You could just barely see it because the walls were floor to ceiling covered in family photos housed in frames of different shapes, sizes, and colors. Nothing matched, and in return, it made everything match.

Just off the entryway to their right, Ollie tilted his head for her to follow down a lengthy hallway. They passed two bedrooms, each that had a small lit tree sitting within it, before he entered the last bedroom in the hall. It too had its own small tree, lit with multicolored lights. It sat right beside a queen-sized bed with a red and orange paisley quilt draped over it. At the foot of the bed sat an oversized trunk that was a completely different shade of wood than the oak dresser in the corner. More picture frames sat on the dresser, placed on a doily.

“This is your room for three days,” Ollie placed her bag on the bed and motioned to a door to their right. “It has its own bathroom that, I’m warning you now, sounds like the pipes are going to break through the walls when you use water. I promise you, that won’t happen.”

Sloan smiled, loving absolutely everything about this house so far. There was no need for him to be embarrassed about anything here. She would have loved loud pipes as a kid. She was lucky if the water even turned on when she was little. Paying bills wasn’t exactly a priority for that particular foster family. Electricity was another luxury that seemed to come and go.

“Blondes, eh?” she bit her lip, still unable to stop herself from making him red again.

“Crazy ones,” he agreed with a groan, rubbing his tired eyes. “It’s a standing joke with them these last few years. They are clingy.”

She tucked her bangs behind her ear. “Guess they didn’t get that whole no kissing rule, huh?”

Their gazes locked. Heat rose into her cheeks. “Guess not,” he mumbled.

The intensity that always seemed to engulf them was so much worse in this tiny room. Sloan took a step back, acting as though she was taking in more of the room and ending whatever spell they’d worked themselves into in a matter of minutes.

Ollie’s throat cleared. “So, uh,” he shifted. “I know Christmas isn’t for two days, but tonight I do Christmas with mom. I don’t think it’s any sort of secret that Mikah and I don’t get along. This way he doesn’t ruin my holiday, and I don’t ruin his. Neither of us can ruin it for mom that way.”

“Oh,” Sloan held her hands together behind her back and leaned onto her heels. This holiday crap was so awkward. She felt like she was intruding, not even knowing most of his family. “I’m going to stay in here for that.”

“No way,” his head shook. “You’re coming out there with me. If I don’t drag you out of here, my mom will. Plus, I need you there for support when I try to explain the ham situation.”

“Ollie...”

Grabbing her hand and leading her out of the room, he wasn’t going to give her any excuse to skip this. Her nerves were bundling into a knot in the back of her throat. It was bad enough growing up and returning to school to hear about all the gifts other kids got over their holidays. Now, she had a front row seat to how a family should celebrate, and it didn’t sound appealing in the least.

They took a left at the end of the hall this time, taking them briefly through a kitchen that just about had Sloan acting like an anchor.

“Trust me, you’ll see it tomorrow,” Ollie laughed, knowing exactly why she wanted to stop.

“I think that was the kitchen of my dreams,” she sighed, being dragged away from it.

They entered a large living room, the one that was on the other side of the bay window from the porch. Now Sloan could see just how stunning that tree really was. Pine wafted through her nostrils, telling her that it was a real tree. One that was covered in way more lights than was necessary—making it absolutely breathtaking when paired with the equally as excessive silver and gold tinsel. Sloan knew her eyes were as wide as saucers as she moved closer to it to view the ornaments. Most were handblown glass and farm-themed. A few were focused around cooking, with various vegetables and fruits made of glass and covered in glitter. The best ones though, were all the handmade ornaments that appeared to be made by children. Hand prints set in clay, clothespin reindeer with stick-on googly eyes, random orbs that looked like they were finger painted, and some made of just beads and string—all made by Ollie and his siblings. They even signed them with their name and the year, showing Sloan that Ollie’s handwriting only got worse with age. And beneath the tree sat many perfectly wrapped gifts with handmade ribbons, bows, and name cards. This was exactly what Sloan had missed out on without a family, and as beautiful as it was to see, it also hurt more than she was prepared for.

“Ma, about the Christmas ham...” Ollie began behind her. “I sort of forgot it at Mulligan’s.”

His mom laughed, curling her feet beneath her on the couch and pulling a knit blanket from the back of it to cover herself. “Oliver, I honestly didn’t believe you were coming. You’ve made excuses for almost two years. You honestly think I didn’t have a damn backup ham?”

Sloan turned just in time to see his relief in an exhale.

“Two years?” she questioned.

If she lived in a place like this growing up, she would never leave it. Sloan didn’t know the first thing about farming, but damn, she could learn. He didn’t want to be at the restaurant that he lived right above; he didn’t want to be near his childhood home. Where did he want to be, exactly?

“We should open gifts,” he changed the subject with a shake in his voice.

Ollie got to his knees on the floor, pulling the basket that he’d brought from the car closer to him. Not knowing what she was supposed to be doing, other than sit back and watch awkwardly, she took a seat on the floor with her back against the couch that his mom was sitting on. Ollie handed his mother a rectangle-shaped box that was wrapped in two different wrapping papers. It looked like he ran out of one halfway through his wrapping. It had no bow on it, but said MOM across it in sharpie.

“Stick to cooking,” his mom joked at his wrap job, causing Sloan to begin giggling.

Penelope slowly tore away the snowman wrapping paper first. The paper didn’t remove itself from the box easily. Ollie seemed to have used half a roll of scotch tape to hold it together, making very few seams to rip. Eventually, she managed to find the box and gave it a small shake to free the bottom from the top of it. There was a small bit of tissue paper to get through before she pulled out a beautiful, navy-colored sweater.

“Oh, Ollie,” she beamed. “This is lovely. I can’t wait to wear it!”

This was more than uncomfortable. She’d wished that Ollie would have just let her stay in the bedroom for this. She could have phoned Hallie to explain the giant mistake she’d made in allowing her boss and teacher talk her into a family Christmas three hours away in the middle of nowhere. Honestly, she didn’t even know where they were.

A wrapped box was shoved towards Sloan, hitting her knee. She looked up to see Ollie retreat back to his spot across the living room. He sat against a reclining chair, drawing his knee up to his chest and wrapping his arm around it. She looked down to the box wrapped in a sparkly green paper with a white ribbon and red bow. This one had a card dangling from the ribbon, and it had her name in cursive. He paid to have this one wrapped, and it was from somewhere upscale. That knot in her throat tripled in size instantly.

“What’s that?” she eyed it like it would bite her.

“A present,” he answered casually.

Short frantic breaths were escaping her as she nodded her head no. “I’m here for you. I don’t do gifts, Ollie. I don’t do Christmas.”

“Just open the damn thing already,” he argued. The look he was giving her told her that it was not up for debate.

Shaky hands fumbled with the ribbon. Sloan bit down on the inside of her cheek so hard that she could already taste blood. It was bulky and heavy. It didn’t matter what was in it though. She’d never received a real gift in her life, and this was too much to take in tonight. But when she began to tear the paper away, and saw what she was holding, tears were at her chin before she could stop them.

“It’s more for me than you,” he joked to ease the tension in the room. “Now I don’t have to worry about you becoming one of those students that loses a finger with shit knives.”

She was holding a brand-new set of chef knives. Not just some cheap brand either—these were the exact same knives that Ollie personally used in his own restaurant. Sloan released a breath, talking herself out of a major panic attack, and placed the knives beside her. She could not get to her feet fast enough.

“Sloan?”

“I need some air,” she whispered before escaping to the entryway that led to the sketchy porch.

She didn’t have a coat this time, and she hadn’t noticed just how fast the cool wind was blowing out here before. It didn’t matter. She shut the door behind her, and sat on a bench to bury her face into her hands. The door opened and closed again. Ollie sat beside her, covering both of their legs with the same blanket his mom was using a few minutes ago.

“Sorry,” she said into her hands. “I spazzed.”

“Over knives?” he laughed, giving her a nudge with his elbow the way they always did when playing.

“Over a gift,” she corrected him. She used her finger tips to clear her eyes of the dampness. “I’ve never received a gift before.”

“Like,” Ollie looked dumbfounded. “Ever? Not a Christmas present, birthday present?”

“I’m an orphan,” she sniffled, knowing he’d never understand. “My foster families were terrible, and even after them, this wasn’t something we celebrated. I’m not looking for pity...”

“I’m not pitying you, Sloan. I promise. I give gifts to people who mean something to me. Which is why Mikah gets coal.”

She laughed through her nose, smiling like an idiot. Ollie was so good at ending her anxiety, she almost hated him for it sometimes. Other times she needed his humor so badly, more than he could possibly understand. Hallie and Ollie helped her in two very different ways.

Her arm was nudged again, and she looked up to a pair of sapphire eyes. “Besides. You lied to me. You have received a gift. I thought that giant green penis that was stuck to your table was a,” he held up air quotes, “gift.”

“God,” she pushed his shoulder as his chest burst with hearty laughter. “That is not the same thing!”

“Clearly!”

Her smile wasn’t going anywhere now, and they both knew it. Ollie lifted the blanket to cover more of them when another blast of cold wind came through. Sloan was just about to offer to take her spazzy-self back inside so that neither of them would catch a cold, but stopped when she noticed snowflakes beginning to drift through the porch, catching a ride with the wind gusts. Instead, she dropped her head to Ollie’s shoulder and watched the grass turn from green back to white, the way it should look when celebrating Christmas.

“I love those knives,” she whispered. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” he whispered back.

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