Salty

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23

S L O A N

“So, how long have you and Ollie been dating?”

Sloan pressed her mitten-covered hands to her face and exhaled a heap of hot air into them in an attempt to keep warm. The relief came but was brief. Her fingers went back to cold. She was uncomfortable standing here alone with Shelby and wished that Ollie would rescue her from this conversation. His mom had casually excused herself from the day’s activities, claiming she had a headache, likely just wanting her kids to spend time together. Sloan wasn’t stupid, she knew that Shelby had to be the girl that messed Ollie up, and now she could clearly see why.

His own brother? Ouch.

“We aren’t dating,” Sloan tugged at the oversized knit hat Ollie had given her to wear before he ran off with his brother to retrieve sleds. Her voice didn’t sound sure of that statement, because she had no idea what her and Ollie were doing. He kissed her, and her skin hadn’t stopped buzzing as a reminder.

Sloan could barely bring herself to look at the girl that she knew Ollie was in love with. Shelby was ridiculously pretty—now recognizing that beauty from the Mulligan’s Christmas party. Even though it was winter, her skin was a sun-kissed caramel color. Her bright blue eyes forced you to take notice of her, and her long blonde hair was perfectly curled and high in a ponytail on top of her head. This was the type of girl who looked like she had her shit together, judging by the expensive Ugg boots on her feet and the purple Canada Goose coat she was wearing.

So, this is Ollie’s type? she wondered. His mom was right—blonde. Not sure about the crazy part yet, other than she couldn’t fathom how you could go from one brother to the next like Ollie meant nothing.

There was no way she could compare to the girl beside her, and she knew it. Sloan was lucky if she could afford a pair of cheap mittens from a thrift shop, and she couldn’t remember the last time she had actually spent the time to curl her hair. That wasn’t even what was bothering her the most though. It was how Shelby looked at Ollie that made her feel sick. For someone with a boyfriend, Shelby’s focus was constantly on the man she left, and her reaction to Sloan was that of a jealous girlfriend.

“Really?” Shelby questioned and stared off towards the garage where the brothers had disappeared to. “But he brought you home for Christmas?”

“He was just being nice. I had a rough year and wasn’t going to celebrate. He felt bad.”

The words stung as Sloan said them, beginning to feel even more lousy. Was the kiss out of pity too? Was the gift? It felt so real, and that realization had begun to completely terrify her. Feelings were brewing in her, and it seemed too soon. The sex was one thing—falling for Ollie was another. It hadn’t even been a year since Steve passed. She was treading unknown waters with Ollie. She didn’t want the thought of gifts, the holiday season, or family, to cloud her judgement.

“You’re selling yourself short, Sloan,” Shelby sighed, still staring at the garage. Sloan knew they were both waiting for the same tattooed chef to appear. “I’ve known Ollie since I was fifteen. He doesn’t bake, and he sure as hell doesn’t go sledding. In fact, he hasn’t been showing up for holidays at all. He’s showing you off and proud of it. Not to mention, he can’t keep his eyes off of you.”

Sloan’s cheeks flushed to a bright shade of red as soon as Shelby turned to look at her, and it wasn’t from the chilled air. Had he really brought her here to meet his family? To show her off? Did he like her as much as she liked him?

Sloan knew how he felt about Shelby though, and that was telling her that Shelby had this wrong. Perhaps he was using Sloan to make his ex jealous? She wanted to think more of him than that, especially since he had asked her out here and not the beautiful blonde who left him for his own kin.

“You’re his ex, right?” Sloan wanted, needed, the confirmation. “The one who left him because of his career?”

Shelby glanced at the garage again as she nodded to agree. Sloan allowed the wave of disgust to hit her, knowing she could never befriend this girl after what she did. It’s not easy to become a head chef at his age. He was doing what he needed to do to succeed and give them a good life. So what, she needed more attention and took the next best thing? Relationships are hard work, and balancing them with school and a job is even harder. How could she toss someone aside that she claimed to love? What if Sloan had done that to Steve when he got sick?

When Ollie and Mikah appeared from the garage, both lugging a sled under each arm, Sloan watched Shelby’s eyes move only towards Ollie. Sloan mirrored her movements and felt her belly flip when Ollie caught only her stare, not that of his ex, and smiled at her as if they were the only two people outside. A warmth overtook her that caused the chattering of her teeth to stop, smiling back.

“Ready, Chef?” he called out to her, trudging his way through knee-deep snow that had accumulated all night and morning.

She bobbed her head yes and took a few steps towards him before looking back at Shelby. “He deserved better than that,” Sloan gave a shrug, feeling the need to stick up for the man who had been sticking up for her.

Shelby visibly swallowed hard, seeming to take in Sloan’s words. Sloan knew by the look on Shelby’s face that she agreed. No words were necessary

* * *

“I’ve never been on a sled,” Sloan confessed to Ollie before biting down on her lip. She scaled the sloped hill in front of them, wondering how the hell to avoid crashing into a tree. Multiple, large spruce trees covered the yard, and she knew she was bound to hit one of them. The incline of the slope seemed sharp for a first timer. She was a terrible klutz and knew Ollie had witnessed this first hand. She was constantly running into things and other people in the kitchen—sometimes him.

“Seriously?” Ollie chuckled and cocked his eyebrow.

“All I’ve done with snow is shovel it.”

“Not even a snow angel or a snow man?”

Sloan shook her head no. Apparently this was a rite of passage for other people during their youth but not hers. She was too busy being worried about finding food for herself and her foster siblings. That’s what started her love for combining ingredients—working with what she had in the sparse cabinets to make something edible.

“Want to go down with me?” Ollie offered, clearly feeling her anxiety about going down the hill for the first time. “I’m willing to share my saucer.”

Sloan looked at the metal saucer in his hands reluctantly. It was small, very small, with only enough room for one occupant. She lifted her eyebrows to him. That grin of his said exactly what she was thinking—she’d be sitting on his lap.

Instead of waiting for an answer, Ollie tossed the metal circle to their feet and took his place on it, dropping his butt to the sled and curling his legs into the shape of a pretzel. Sloan was already giggling at the sight of him. If only her classmates could see their hard-ass chef now, grinning like a child on a new toy with his arms outstretched for her to join him. There was no way she was going to resist those pleading eyes and dimples he was offering her. Carefully, she stood in front of him, allowing Ollie’s hands to grip her hips and guide her down to his lap until she plopped into place.

“Tuck your legs how I have mine,” he instructed, placing his chin upon her shoulder. He smelled like their snickerdoodles—like cinnamon and sugar. Her mouth watered.

Sloan did as she was told, forming a pretzel with her legs and leaning herself into Ollie’s chest. The sound of laughter rang out from the other couple that had already gone down the hill once on individual sleds. Mikah and Shelby were now trekking their way back up the hill. Sloan peered back to Ollie to gauge his reaction of being out here with his ex, but he was focused intensely on the girl in his lap. She liked this spot and couldn’t help but to think that she fit here nicely.

“You tell me when you’re ready,” he smiled while staring at her lips. Memories of their kiss in the kitchen rushed back to her, bringing goosebumps with them.

Why did she feel like this was a loaded response—being ‘ready’? Is that how he was hoping she would interpret it? She felt exhilaration and utterly terrified as she gave a little nod.

“Ready,” she whispered back, seeing her own breath in the cold. She just hoped that he realized that she was trusting him more with just a sled ride down a hill.

With Sloan’s heart pounding, she felt all of Ollie’s muscles flex against her as he used his hands to push them forward. She attempted to brush off the fact that she was panicking about the trees. Sloan didn’t tense up until she could feel the sled slide by itself, just a little, telling her that they were damn close to losing their control over it.

“I’ve got you,” Ollie whispered to her neck and wrapped his arms around her middle, just before using his hips to give one more thrust of momentum to the cold metal.

As soon as the sled began to slip, Sloan’s hands were gripping Ollie’s arms for dear life, causing him to hug her closer. The sled started slow at first, but once it hit a nice open patch of fresh snow, it began moving much faster than Sloan had anticipated. She let out the first of many screams that were about to follow when they hit the first bump.

“Oh my God, Ollie! You’re going to kill me!” she squealed and pressed her eyes shut tight. Ollie was laughing behind her, his chest vibrating against her back, finding her fear much funnier than she did.

“Big bump!” he yelled out just as they hit it.

Sloan didn’t have to open her eyes to know that they were airborne. The fluttering in her stomach told her they were. The freezing air against her face was exhilarating. She found herself surprised that she was actually enjoying this.

“Oh, shit!” she let out another scream as they hit back down to the snow.

“Roll off!” Ollie yelled into her ear. “Or we are going to hit the tree!”

“WHAT?” she screamed in panic, opening her eyes just in time to see that he was correct. They were heading towards a rather large spruce.

Instinctively, Sloan brought her hands up to cover her face, disregarding Ollie’s requests to roll. Instead of repeating himself, Ollie held her even tighter and rolled himself with Sloan in his arms off of the saucer and into the crunchy, cold, snow beneath them. The sled stopped beside the pair without their weight to guide it further.

Sloan was laughing so hard that she didn’t even care how cold and drenched her clothes were becoming. That was the most fun she had experienced in years. Ollie let out a slow, pained groan, followed by his own hearty laughter as he rolled his body to face Sloan. His dimples were well defined, and Sloan had never heard him laugh so loud. She was hearing his real laugh, the one from their first night at the bar and Thanksgiving-eve, and it was her new favorite sound.

Ollie moved himself closer and wrapped his arm around her as he hovered slightly. “You okay?” he chuckled.

“That was so fun!” Sloan admitted. “Again!”

“Slow down, Daredevil,” he grinned above her. “Take a moment to make sure you aren’t in pain. If you aren’t now, a few more times down that hill and you will be tonight.”

“I feel amazing!” she cheered, speaking the truth.

More giggles ensued as she snuggled herself into the snow. Ollie used his arm to pull her closer into him. She wasn’t going to resist this, and she didn’t when he brought his wet glove up to cup her chilled cheek.

“I’m sorry we haven’t had much alone time,” he apologized. “I thought if we came out here we’d be by ourselves.”

“I don’t mind. Your mom is so nice to allow me to hang out here over your family’s holiday.”

“She likes you,” he smiled. “I just didn’t realize she’d keep attempting to steal all of your time.”

“We’re alone now?” Sloan offered some consolation and bit down on her lip.

Ollie seemed to like that answer as he began to dip his face down closer to hers. Her stomach was already doing flips with Ollie’s thumb gliding across her cheek.

“Yes, we are...” he agreed.

Sloan’s eyes closed, readying herself for their second kiss of the day, only long enough to hear screams, laughter, and another sled landing beside them. Her eyes opened again, only to see Ollie rolling his eyes at his brother and his ex’s impeccable timing.

“...and now we are not.” Ollie dropped himself back into the snow with a frustrated huff.

Sloan seconded this sound with the same disappointment that her lips were lacking his.

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