Salty

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22

O L L I E

After showering and dressing, Ollie entered the Kitchen to find his mother sitting at the oversized table made out of old barn wood. He kissed her cheek before taking the empty mug from in front of her to fill with some hot coffee. For as much as he didn’t want to be here, he really did miss his mother and mornings like this.

“She’s sweet,” Penelope chirped behind him as he poured the coffee.

Ollie didn’t respond, but he knew she was referring to Sloan. His houseguest was still sleeping, and he truly envied that. Being here made his own sleeping habits that much worse. It wasn’t a matter of if he was going to have a nightmare, it was when. This wasn’t going to be his first trip to the coffee pot today. Now he was wondering if Sloan drank coffee too. She never exactly had stuck around for him to find out.

“So, she’s a chef at the restaurant?”

“Yeah. I thought it was time I trained someone. It’s been hectic since...” Ollie stopped, not wanting to upset his mom. He placed her fresh cup back in its place and took a sip of his own before taking the seat beside her. “Anyways, Mikah couldn’t make canned soup if his life depended on it. I needed help.”

Her frail hand moved to his wrist and gave it a squeeze. “Well, I’m glad you’re learning that you can ask for help.”

Her sad blue eyes were sympathetic, and Ollie didn’t have the heart to explain that it wasn’t the same thing. He also couldn’t bring himself to tell her that the idea of training Sloan was to get him out of Mulligan’s completely. There would come a day, and sooner rather than later, that he would leave it and never return. The subject needed to change. That would just put a damper on Christmas.

“Mom,” Ollie tightly gripped the glass. “Sloan’s a widow, and I’m not sure how long it has been since her husband passed away, but I need you to not ask a bunch of questions about her life. It gets to her.”

There was a lot of understanding in Penelope’s expression. If anyone understood how badly it could hurt, his mom was the one. No need for further explanation, especially since both of them could hear Sloan leaving the spare bedroom.

When Ollie turned in his chair, he found Sloan showered, with hair still down and wet, in jeans and the same Cubs tee he’d first seen her wear on their first day of class together. She had no idea how much it meant to him that she came with on this trip. If he was going to find a way to waste time while here, he wanted to waste it with her.

“Morning,” she bit the lower lip of her smile.

“Hey,” he stood.

“This kitchen is incredible, Penny,” she took in her surroundings with widened eyes. “It is absolutely perfect.”

Ollie had to agree. Everything he hadn’t learned in the kitchen of Mulligan’s was learned right here. The house had been added on to once since it was originally built. It was double the size of most kitchens, triple the size of his own. His mom wanted a space for the whole family, and she sure was able to do it. It was a room to entertain in for sure. Off-white cabinetry lined every wall, a double oven housed to the right of an extra-large refrigerator that you couldn’t even tell was there, because it had its own cabinetry as a face. A coffee bar, its own prep station, a wine fridge, and two large, farmhouse basin sinks. Then there was the table itself, built out of an old barn they’d torn down years ago. It still had everyone’s initials carved into the center of it. That table was definitely the star of the room, even if it did have seven miss-matched chairs surrounding it, it just added to its appeal.

“Told you she’s sweet,” his mom winked.

He didn’t doubt that Sloan was sweet for one second.

“Well,” his mom stood, picking up her coffee to take with. “I think I’m going to head into town and do some last-minute shopping. Would you two like to go with?”

Before Sloan could even answer, Ollie stepped between the two women. “No,” he answered swiftly. “I uh, think we will just hang out here.”

Did he want to be alone with Sloan? Absolutely. That wasn’t why he was stepping in though. He knew the way his mom shopped, and also knew that Sloan would not be able to keep up—physically, mentally, or financially. And if Sloan was going to experience town, it was going to be with him, experiencing it the right way—by tasting all the exquisite food Galena had to offer.

“I’ll show her around your kitchen,” Ollie offered.

“That gives me an idea!” his mother’s blue eyes lit up playfully. “You can start the baking!”

“The what?” both Sloan and Ollie said in unison, equally disgusted with that idea.

“The baking!” she said excitedly, moving to a desk that was built into the cabinetry. From there, she fetched a list and held it out for Ollie to take.

“Mom,” he eyed the list. Chocolate chip cookies, snickerdoodles, sugar cookie cut-outs, peanut butter blossoms, fudge, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, and about ten others that he knew weren’t happening. “We are chefs, we do not bake.”

“It’s the same thing,” she gave his back a slap. “You’ll have a blast! Ingredients are all here.”

She disappeared up the stairs while Sloan took in the same list. They shared a very hesitant look.

“We have to measure,” he groaned. Sloan’s head dropped against his shoulder as she did the same.

***

After Penelope had left, the pair got down to business. Neither of them half-assed in the kitchen and vowed not to make this the exception. They made a little game of it, each picking a recipe and seeing who could fuck it up the least. Sloan began with the classic snickerdoodle, while Ollie opted for the pumpkin. Just like they had done numerous times at Mulligan’s, they soon found their groove in the kitchen. They danced around each other, tripped over each other, argued over who got to use the quarter measuring cup, bitched about cracking eggs and losing part of the shell, and laughed every time they’d measured wrong. The radio accompanied their banter with Christmas music in the background.

By midday, and between two chefs, three mixers, and two ovens, the counters soon filled with holiday treats that weren’t limited to cookies but also a few bars and one hell of a delicious batch of vanilla bean fudge. The sugar cookie dough was in the fridge and ready to be rolled out when the rest of Ollie’s family would arrive, but he was hoping to avoid that activity. The only cookie they had to nix from the list were the peanut butter blossoms, and that’s because they’d been sneaking kisses all day—kisses of the Hershey variety, that is.

Both of them looked as though they had lost the good fight with a bag of all-purpose baking flour. Ollie could feel it on his face, just as he could see the white powder on Sloan’s. A particularly heavy dusting of it was just beneath her right eye, almost looking like she meant to put it there—like people in sports do with the black shit beneath their eyes. The sight of this beautiful woman covered in baking ingredients had Ollie’s lips curling upwards while he attempted to stifle his laugh.

“You look just as ridiculous!” she slapped his arm playfully. Even this caused a cloud of flour to lift from the sleeve of his shirt and form a cloud of white between them. She was right. The sight was ridiculous, especially for two chefs to have caused such a mess.

Sloan’s sudden laughter with their cloud of flour was intoxicating, and Ollie found himself laughing along with her. He couldn’t remember the last time he had so much fun in the kitchen, or at home, for that matter. And they were baking of all things.

“Here,” he nodded at Sloan’s white cheek and bit down on his lip while bringing his thumb to it to brush away the flour. As soon as his skin met hers, it was as if every nerve of his body was suddenly aware of how close she was to him—at how close she has been to him all weekend. His thumb brushed the flour away, but he couldn’t bring himself to end the touch. Instead, he cupped her cheek, causing her green eyes to meet his own.

Ollie swallowed down those insecurities that were telling him not to like Sloan, because he knew he liked her the moment he met her. Stubborn, strong-willed, a little crazy, with an excellent shopping list—she was perfect. He was pushing away all those reminding thoughts that told him she was his student, because they were past that point of no return already. There were two issues that were in his way of closing the gap between him and the girl who was constantly on his mind and challenging him in the best and worst ways. Firstly, he didn’t want to be let down again, and he feared that she would be just the one to do it. Because secondly, she just lost her husband, and Ollie didn’t know if Sloan was even ready for whatever this had suddenly become.

“Ollie,” Sloan’s voice was hesitant and pleading all at the same time, mirroring his own thoughts. Her hand came to his chest, and he knew he needed to react with his gut instinct on this. Ollie took one step forward, bringing his other hand up so that he was now cupping both sides of Sloan’s jaw and, with closed eyes, dipped down to slowly brush his lips against hers.

The Hershey kisses she had been eating earlier were still sweet on her lips, and he wanted more, but only if her aftertaste accompanied it. Ollie couldn’t remember the last time a kiss had caused his stomach to float to his chest with nerves, but the feeling was so intense that he never wanted it to falter. He could feel the heat radiating from her face against his palms, and he chose to not use that as a win quite yet. He slowly pulled away and waited for her to say something, hoping that he didn’t just fuck this up. It felt like eternity as he waited for her reaction, even though it was only a few seconds before the dainty hand on his chest formed a fist, gripping the fabric of his plaid shirt. His eyes fluttered open at the same time that Sloan’s did, and both of them smiled before carefully connecting their lips again. This time, Sloan’s mouth moved with his as she lifted herself to the tips of her toes.

Just as Ollie began moving one arm around the small of Sloan’s back, the sound of the front door opening, shopping bags rustling, and multiple sets of voices caused the pair to pull away from each other to begin making themselves look busy. Sloan opened the oven a few inches and looked at the last batch of pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, and that action immediately told Ollie that Sloan was frazzled. She knew better than to open the oven while something still had minutes left to cook; it allowed heat out. Before he could begin overthinking, those extra voices he heard just a few moments ago became clearer, and he knew this day had just taken a turn for the worse.

“Well, look at you two!” his mom cheerfully entered the room, tossing down grocery bags and a few extra bags from Kohl’s. “It smells amazing in here! Doesn’t it, Shelby?”

Ollie looked up to the blonde behind his mother, met her blue eyes only long enough to be reminded partially of the reason why he hated coming home for holidays, and turned back to a confused Sloan. How could it be that he wanted to run and stay all at the same time?

“Smells great,” Shelby complimented behind him.

Was Sloan mad that he had kissed—really kissed—her this time? Was she not ready for it? She kissed him back. Why did everyone have to show up now? Ollie would have loved to ask Sloan, but his brother and his ex entering the kitchen wasn’t about to allow for such discussion.

“You brought a guest,” Mikah’s judgmental eyes fell upon Sloan and then moved back to his brother. Sloan...? he mouthed so no one would hear.

Ollie shrugged. He definitely wasn’t in the mood to hear his brother’s lecture about dating an employee. Ollie knew Sloan before she was one, and if he wanted to go into specifics, Mikah knew Shelby before dating her and was damn close to calling her sister-in-law.

Sloan appeared uncomfortable, obviously feeling tension in the room. She kept busying herself by dampening a cloth and gliding it over the countertops to collect the mess of dry ingredients.

“Are you going to offer introductions, Ollie?” his mother waved her hand from Sloan to Shelby.

It felt like this was a setup. This was his mother’s attempt at fixing the strained relationship between her offspring, because he had brought a girl home for Christmas. Mikah and Shelby weren’t supposed to show up until later tonight, when they had their own Christmas with Penelope. During that time, he’d planned to make himself and Sloan scarce. Ollie clutched the back of his neck, wondering how the hell he ended up here. How was he supposed to introduce her now? It was hard enough last night when they hadn’t just shared a kiss. Was she to be introduced as the girl he had a one-night stand with, who ended up being his student before he made her life a living hell for a few months, then ultimately fucked her again just after agreeing never to do that again, but then bringing her home for Christmas and just to fall crazily in love with her?

His chest expanded with air, realizing that he was falling for Sloan—something he promised himself would never happen again because of the very people in front of him. He swallowed hard and glanced to Sloan again, who had finally looked up at Shelby with a hesitant smile. Apparently, Sloan had put two and two together, and she now knew that Shelby was part of the reason for a strained family relationship. He prided himself on his confidence, but he felt about two inches tall right now.

While positioning his hand on the small of Sloan’s back, Ollie kept his eyes on her and only her as he attempted to collect his jumbled thoughts. “Uh,” he took another swallow. “This is my...”

Fuck. Who is Sloan to me? his mind searched for the word.

His eyes surveyed her face for an answer that she didn’t have either. She was more than a damn friend, that’s for sure. Having just kissed for the first time a few moments ago, girlfriend was not the word he was looking for either. She was the girl who was giving him a serious case of a fluttering stomach every time he even glanced at her after that kiss.

“I’m Sloan,” she answered with a sigh, removing her glance away from his, and causing him to feel guilty that he put her on the spot.

Sloan wiped her hands quickly on the wet towel in her hands and offered a clean hand out to Shelby. Ollie was definitely in his own personal hell as Shelby took Sloan’s hand and gave it a small shake, all the while staring at him. Shelby had zero fucking right to appear upset by the fact that he had brought a girl home to his family’s Christmas. He sent a nasty glare in her direction—a warning to play nice.

“Shelby,” she forced her lips to curl up for a brief second, then allowed them to fall. “I’m Mikah’s,” she paused to look back at his brother, ”girlfriend.”

It had been long over a year since she announced to Ollie that she was seeing his brother. Almost two. A hard day to forget when you’re standing in the visitation line for your father’s wake, and the woman you’re in love with joins the line to console your brother—not the man she shared half of her life with. That day they threw the word girlfriend and boyfriend around as if they were as common as the word the in their vocabulary. Today, Shelby hesitated before saying girlfriend, and all it took was for Sloan to be in the room.

“Sloan is a chef too!” his mother cheerfully added as she flew around the kitchen, opening cabinets, and putting away her groceries.

“Oh, wow!” Shelby exclaimed with a tone Ollie knew held fake enthusiasm. She was playing stupid. Shelby had now realized that Sloan was also an employee of Mulligan’s. The one whose name had sent coffee flying from his mouth just a few short weeks ago when it came from his ex’s lips. “Good for you. I know how difficult that is. Ollie’s time is quite focused around it. You don’t get to have much of a life.”

Ouch.

“Aspiring chef,” Sloan corrected her with an embarrassed smile. “I’m still in school.”

“She is a chef,” Ollie’s thumb did a small circle on Sloan’s back. “A good one.”

Sloan’s gaze lifted to Ollie again and that damn feeling of knots released to a fluttering sensation in his stomach once more. She didn’t appear to believe what he had just said, but it was the truth. Just because she hadn’t mastered the technical aspects of becoming a chef, or that she hadn’t trained or studied abroad, didn’t make her less of a chef. She has the pallet and drive to become amazing, and Ollie knew it was a matter of time before she would be at his level. He had never had a student so driven before. He just wished she wasn’t so hard on herself when he had to be hard on her.

“Let’s leave this kitchen for a while,” Ollie suggested, while tuning out his family. There was a kiss that needed to be discussed, because he wanted to make damn sure she was ready before he did it again. And he definitely wanted to do it again. “We have sleds. Think you’re up for it?”

Sloan’s smile grew wide as she bobbed her head yes, a good sign in Ollie’s opinion. There was a fresh dusting of Christmas snow, and the large hill in the backyard was calling their names. It had been years since he climbed his ass on a metal sled, but hell, he made cookies today so why not go all out?

“What a great idea!” his mother chimed in. “We will meet you two out there.”

We?

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