Salty

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27

S L O A N

Sloan’s covers were yanked from a sleepy grasp, followed by a sharp, high-pitched gasp for air. It hadn’t come from her, and now she was wide awake. The man who was sleeping beside her only moments ago was now sitting up, gasping for air and scratching at his neck.

“Ollie!” she sat herself up and got to her knees beside him. He continued to fight for his air, eyes wide and panicked. “Ollie what’s wrong?”

With both hands she held his face, forcing him to look at her—a hard feat in a room that was currently dark. Reaching to the bedside table, she turned on the light. Ollie wasn’t speaking, just hyperventilating the way she did when having Steve-induced panic attacks. Sweat was pouring from his skin, even though to the touch, he was still cold from the freezing room. Ollie clutched her wrists tightly and pulled her closer.

“Breathe,” she whispered and pecked the corner of his mouth with a kiss.

He did what he was told, taking a deep breath in and a deep breath out. The panic in Sloan didn’t stop even when his breathing had returned to a somewhat normal rhythm, because she could still feel how fast his heart was racing when she placed her palm to his clammy chest. His head dropped to her shoulder, still holding her wrists to keep her right here in the bed they’d been sharing for the last week.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, releasing his hold of her. Her shaking hands fell back to her lap. “Just a nightmare. Go back to sleep.”

How was she supposed to sleep after that? Ollie left the bed, taking the empty glass from the table beside them with him. Sloan stayed in her kneeling position, listening to the faucet turn on and off in the bathroom across the hall, while waiting for him to return to the bed. He didn’t come back though.

Her phone was still laying beside her pillow, right beside the food safety textbook that she’d been reading and trying to prepare for her first day back to class in the morning. She knew the last time she’d looked at the clock on her phone it was midnight. That’s when she dropped the book and gave into her dozing while Ollie was snoring off and on beside her. Now, looking at the phone once more, she saw that was all of twenty minutes ago.

There was little hope that he’d return to the bed again tonight. Of the last ten plus days they’d been together, she’d woken up in his arms only twice. This was the first time she’d stayed up this late while he was already sleeping. Now, as she laid here shivering from the cold apartment’s drafts and fighting to pull the covers back up, she wondered how many times he’d awoken just like this without her realizing it.

She had a bad feeling it was around eight times.

***

The absolute best part of Ollie’s apartment was the bathroom. It was a first for her, loving a room with a toilet over one with several working appliances and a stocked refrigerator. Not the case here. After being shown pictures of the renovation process of the old attic for storage to a bachelor pad, this room was hands down the most eye catching.

Similar to the rest of the apartment, Ollie left the exterior walls of his bathroom an exposed brick—which amounted to two of the walls of his corner shower. And this shower was practically the size of Sloan’s entire bathroom back at her and Hallie’s place. The other two walls of the shower were a very clear glass, which made it extra fun when walking in as a certain tattooed chef showered. The other walls were a cool gray, with the original wooden floors of the room still intact. The backsplash behind his vanity was actually the original brass stamped ceiling that had been in the kitchen when he was younger. They had to swap it out to keep up with local code, but Ollie said he couldn’t bring himself to toss it when it had history with his grandfather’s building. He was sure to have all the accents fixtures and drawer pulls match—that included the feet of the clawfoot tub. Ollie told Sloan to use it, saying it never got use, but she was too addicted to the shower to try it.

She always liked standing beneath the hot water in the morning, especially when the apartment was constantly cold. Honestly, she figured that staying with Ollie would have her wearing less clothes, not more. She was living in his sweatshirts. Today, she stood beneath it lost in thoughts of what had happened just a few short hours ago.

“Behave!” her finger lifted to the sound of the door of the bathroom opening. Ollie smiled wickedly, causing her to wish that they had more time to not behave.

With hands held above his head to surrender, he chortled. “I just came in here for my toothbrush.”

“Sure you did.”

Picking up his toothbrush cockily, he dabbed it with toothpaste before shoving it into his mouth with a smile. Sloan’s eyes rolled, and she turned the stream of water off. Ollie already had a towel in his hand, extending one arm out to her with it, the other hand covering his eyes playfully while still biting on a toothbrush. As if the clear glass hadn’t shown him everything that he came in here to ogle.

“Can we talk?” she quizzed, pulling his hand away from his eyes.

He began circulating the toothbrush against his teeth. ”Abouu...?”

“Last night.”

Him turning his back to her to spit toothpaste into the sink and not turning back around instantly told her that he wasn’t in the mood for that conversation. She had a feeling it would go this way. In fact, any time she brought up his sleeping habits, he didn’t seem interested in clarifying. But the fact was, Ollie looked more tired now than he had since she’d known him. The circles beneath his eyes were so defined that they looked as if they were there to stay.

“What did you dream about?”

He spit into the sink again before tossing his toothbrush back into a cup beside the faucet. “I don’t remember.”

“Do you dream about it a lot?”

This time he was leaving the room, and Sloan had to wrap the towel around herself quickly to keep up. He was already dressed for the day in his normal school attire, a pair of black dress pants and a nice white polo. It will just be covered with his jacket, once actually in class. He was taking her to school today, and likely was waiting on her to dress, which is why he was now beginning to stack her text books for her. They’d picked them up a few days ago so that she could begin her studying for semester tests next week.

“Ollie?”

“Sloan, I don’t know, because I don’t remember,” he shrugged, shoving the books into her backpack.

She understood not remembering the dream. But how could you not remember how often you have nightmares? Especially if they were occurring every night, like she was suspecting. Obviously, he had no plans of sharing, and somehow, she knew he wouldn’t. It’s not like she could stop him from having them anyways, but she was now taking what little sleep he actually got, and it was showing.

“I’m going to have Hallie pick me up from work tonight.”

“Why?” he quizzed, now tossing a pair of clean jeans her way from the laundry basket.

“So that you sleep tonight.”

Ollie’s gaze lifted towards the ceiling, and he took a deep breath. “They have nothing to do with you.”

“Thought you didn’t remember them?” she bit her thumbnail, knowing she was pressing her luck.

Turning to her, his head shook no. No...he doesn’t remember them? Or no...shut up, Sloan?

“You can’t be bringing me to school every day anyways. One day is fine, but we can’t make a habit of that. And besides, Hallie comes home tonight too, and I miss her crazy ass. We have to talk about girl stuff.”

“Such as?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her in a while. We’ll probably make sure our periods are still synched, and then talk about the size of your dick.”

His brows lifted while Sloan began to giggle and dress herself.

“And...what do you plan to say about it?”

She lifted her shirt above her head and allowed it to fall over her face. “Depends.”

“On?” he asked.

“What do you dream about?”

“Ugh,” he groaned, leaving the bedroom.

“Guess I’m telling her it’s adequate!” she called after him before following.

Ollie stood with the door open for her, her backpack swung over his shoulder. “We both know I’m more than adequate.”

Sloan passed through the threshold. “We also both know that you’re lying about not remembering those dreams.”

It was the end of the cock discussion for Ollie. Adequate was suddenly acceptable to tell other people.

***

It was business, or school, as usual back at the Chicago Culinary Institute. Sloan could barely get a word in when she finally found Ava, who had spent her entire Christmas vacation in Paris with her family. That was more than fine with Sloan, who wasn’t in the mood to confess anything about her Christmas vacation other than it was lovely. Ava had basically dined her way through the city of love, and that part may have made Sloan a little jealous.

On the plus side, Sloan now had the knives required to pass Ollie’s class, and they made a world of difference when mincing. She could have killed him when he placed a green pepper down in front of her with a smirk. The mistake he made was complimenting her on a job well done, because not one person in class didn’t notice that change of demeanor. Ollie was normally a dick to everyone in the class, but he had a special interest in being particularly spiteful towards Sloan. Him stopping this had Ava elbowing Sloan and giving her a thumbs up. Ollie’s compliment had strings attached, and that needed to be nixed ASAP. If they were going to have a relationship outside of school, it needed to stay completely separate. She needed to be treated like everyone else, so that other students or faculty wouldn’t be throwing red flags in their direction.

By the time both school and a shift at Mulligan’s was over, Sloan was beyond tired. Being woken by Ollie having a nightmare didn’t exactly help put her back to sleep either. She was dying for some one on one time with her own bed, and dreading it at the same time. Thankfully, Hallie was already at the bar when Sloan escaped the kitchen. Sloan was barely around the bar when two outstretched arms took her into a hug.

“Ahhh!” Hallie rocked them back and forth ridiculously, catching the cocked eye of Mikah. “I missed you! Not that I mind getting cocktails, but tell me why you don’t have your car tonight? How did you get to school and work?”

Mikah gave Sloan a very knowing look that had her sticking her tongue out at him. She didn’t know how long Hallie had been sitting here being entertained by the bartender, but it seemed that Mikah had kept his mouth shut, thankfully. It wasn’t normal for her to keep anything from Hallie, but this was something she needed to work out for herself. It’s not like those Ollie feelings were a secret anyways.

Mikah placed two fresh cocktails onto the bar top, and the girls took them to a booth in the corner of the restaurant. It was a spot mostly secluded from the other booths and typically only used on really busy nights. The question was where to start...

***

It took a lot to make Hallie Reynolds speechless. She sat with three empty cocktails in front of her, blinking like she had been for the last half hour. It was a lot of shock and smidge of worry that was written all over her face. Sloan knew her friend well, and this was the exact expression that she had expected.

“Are you,” Hallie paused, swirling the skewer of her drink to make the ice cubes shift. “Do you think you’re in love with him?”

Sloan rubbed at her aching neck with tears begging to be released. She knew the question was coming, but there really wasn’t an easy answer for it. That L word was not coming from her lips anytime soon, even if her head used it on more than one occasion.

“What kind of person has feelings like this for someone when their husband just died?” Sloan wiped at her eyes. “I’m a terrible person.”

“Sloan, you’re not,” Hallie’s hand landed on Sloan’s wrist and squeezed it.

“I don’t feel it when I’m with him,” she confessed.

“Feel what?”

“That ache that nags at me because of Steve. I don’t feel it. Ollie just makes me laugh so hard that I forget it, and I don’t want to forget either. But I also don’t want to feel this void all the time where Steve is supposed to be. It hasn’t been a year...”

“Stop giving yourself a timeline,” Hallie’s eyes rolled. “There are no rules that say when it’s okay to stop mourning, Honey. Is it fast? Yes. Does that matter? No. It’s widow’s guilt. Steve would want you happy...”

“Can we...” Sloan dropped her face into her hands and took a deep breath. “Can we stop talking about Steve, please?”

This was the most hurt she’d felt in weeks. Sloan was already crying and knew that the moment she landed herself back into the bed she shared with Steve, the guilt was going to hit like a truck. She may have been tired, but somehow, she knew that she was in for a night of tears. She also didn’t want Ollie walking out of the kitchen and finding her like this.

“Yeah,” Hallie shrugged with a frown, knowing exactly what kind of night they were in for. “We can stop. Want to talk about the chick by the bar who keeps looking over here like one of us fucked her boyfriend? Because she’s freaking me out.”

Sloan’s attention gravitated towards the busy bar, now spying exactly who Hallie was talking about. “We are going to need more drinks for that conversation,” she waved her arm at Mikah for refills.

“Why?” Hallie questioned, peering to the bar again.

“Because I’m the one that slept with her boyfriend,” Sloan groaned. “Ex-boyfriend.”

“Thank god,” Hallie picked an ice cube out of her empty glass and popped it into her mouth to chew. “It wasn’t me this time.”

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