Salty

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31

S L O A N

New Message: Ava Linden:
Where are you?

New Message: Ava Linden:
He’s closing the doors in like 3 min.

New Message: Ollie Mulligan
Where the hell are you?

New Message: Ollie Mulligan
?????

New Message: Ava Linden:
The test was horrible. I think I failed. Hope everything is okay 😕

New Message: Hallie Reynolds
Please come out of there. I love you. You shouldn’t cry alone.

New Message: Ava Linden:
Are you missing every final? Are you dropping out? No retakes... remember?

New Message: Thomas (T.J.) Jones
I know you don’t want to hear it, but I’m thinking of you today.

New Message: Ollie Mulligan:
Answer your damn phone. You’re scaring the hell out of me. I had to fail you!

New Message: Hallie Reynolds
Wanna watch Pretty Woman and drink wine with me?

New Message: Ollie Mulligan:
I’m coming over.

With her stomach in knots, Sloan slowly used her thumb to swipe each message off of her screen. Everyone she knew had been worried about her and sending her messages, but her phone had died the night before. Her head was too preoccupied to even think to charge it. Then with the sudden drive to the farm, it was left in her room back at the duplex. That night seemed like a lifetime ago; not a day. As she opened the door to Mulligan’s, the phone vibrated once more with another text.

New Message: Ava Linden:
We’re going out tonight to celebrate the end of the semester. Want to come?

Hard pass. Tonight’s schedule included a shift that she had been absolutely dreading ever since coming home with Ollie. After their very brief conversation in the barn, Ollie became the quiet brooding type. Just when she’d thought she had seen all of his personalities; this one was new. He didn’t want to argue, he didn’t want to yell, he didn’t want to cry anymore, he just turned himself off completely. And by doing this, that apparently meant ignoring Sloan the entire way home—making even Hallie feel awkward for being in the vehicle. Hallie, of course, knew nothing of what had been said in the barn, and when she attempted to start any sort of conversation, Ollie would turn up the volume of the radio to end it. Hope that he had sent a text since dropping her off at home was now diminished. Hopefully, tonight would be back to normal.

The restaurant already appeared busier than usual as Sloan made her way to the kitchen. She sent off a text to Ava, passing on tonight’s celebration on the end of the semester. Partying over the tanking of her grades didn’t sound like a good time at all. She was dreading the email of her scores that would all list zeros.

“He’s in a mood!” Mikah called out to her just before she pushed through the swinging door of the kitchen. A vodka bottle was being held high in the air, upside down with a stream of clear liquid pouring into a mixed drink. “You’ve been warned.”

Sloan sighed heavily, wondering just how bad. Curiosity was quickly answered with Ollie’s heated tone booming from inside the kitchen. It was heard over the sound of the patrons in the restaurant and the music meant to accompany their dining experience. She’d witnessed him get testy in the kitchen before, but this seemed more like irate. Then there was a clatter that sounded like a metal pan being slammed into the countertop. More shouting followed.

“Told you,” Mikah added with an eye roll.

Sloan pushed her way into the kitchen, immediately swarmed by the tension between staff. People moved frantically, panicked. The waitresses couldn’t get themselves and their trays out of the room fast enough, nearly taking out Sloan in the process. She ducked, pivoted, and squeezed her way through to the opposite side of the room to get at the timeclock and her jacket.

“You’re late!” his bark sounded off behind her.

“No,” she pointed to the clock, seeing she still had three minutes to spare. “I’m not.”

“Close enough. You’re on the hollandaise tonight.”

“But I’ve never made...” by the time she turned around, he was gone into the abyss of kitchen staff, finding his next victim. That happened to be Todd, who currently had a bulging vein on his forehead from the amount of stress he was carrying tonight.

The whiteboard showed tonight’s special as filet mignon topped with a dill butter, and garlic asparagus with a hollandaise drizzle. This was new. So not only was Ollie in a mood from hell, but he threw a new menu item at them on a busy Sunday. Great. After tossing her purse into a locker and donning her jacket, Sloan was on the hunt for Ollie once more. Probably not the smartest move, but she had no idea what she was doing when it came to making hollandaise. She could Google it, but somehow, she thought that would just result in him hating something with the way she did it. As far as she knew, the recipe was pretty basic.

Sloan tapped Ollie’s back and when he turned, she was taken aback by the stern expression. Maybe more so by the dark circles under his eyes. “What do you want?”

“I’ve never made this,” she muttered, feeling two inches tall.

“Fuck,” he moved past her to grab a pan from above the prep station. He slammed it to a burner, causing Sloan to jump.

“Calm down,” she clutched his arm and drew it closer to him. They locked glances like they’d done a million times in this room, but this time, it didn’t feel the same. He wasn’t undressing her with a single look. This one told her not to touch him. She let go. “You’re tired. You’re pissed. I get it. You had a rough day yesterday...”

“You don’t know anything about me!” he clapped back with sapphire eyes going darker by the second.

Her eyes stung instantly. She knew they were being watched by everyone in here. The silence around them was deafening. This was harder now. At school, he was nothing more than a prick teacher that she happened to sleep with. She knew more about him than anyone in this room, and couldn’t even throw that into his face. This was all a result of yesterday and her knowing something that he was planning on never sharing with anyone.

“I know if you don’t calm the fuck down that I’m going to walk out of this kitchen in tears. Teach me your goddamn recipe so that I don’t have to talk to you again tonight. Which is obviously your goal.”

Ollie was breathing heavily through flaring nostrils. He had a choice to make right now, and Sloan knew that he was deciding in his head if his attitude was worth the risk of her walking out of Mulligan’s. She understood the not wanting to be pitied, but this was him trying to push her away. Everything he wanted to say to her right now, and vice versa, couldn’t be said in front of the staff.

“Melt butter,” his chest rose and fell. ”Do not boil it. A half-cup to every three egg yolks. Whisk eggs, splash of vinegar. Add the butter and whisk again until your volume doubles. Add salt and cayenne to taste. My taste. Not yours. We don’t need half the restaurant choking down pure sodium. Can you manage that for now?”

Sloan didn’t answer. She just put herself to work and hoped the shift would end without her becoming a crying mess.

***

She worked tirelessly beside Ollie all evening. The new menu item combined with the busy night had everyone in a tizzy. She’d messed up the first batch of hollandaise, adding the hot butter into the eggs seemed to turn it into some runny version of scrambled eggs. That mistake was not made the second time. Not to mention, she was assisting with all the other menu items that were going out to the floor tonight. Steadily, Ollie seemed to calm down, focusing on his work instead of belittling his entire staff to the point where they wanted to walk out on him. Sloan couldn’t help but to start counting the number of times she’d caught him yawning. Sixteen times in an hour seemed excessive.

“Ollie, you’re exhausted,” she finally turned and crossed her arms when he yawned a seventeenth time.

“I’m not,” he somberly told the asparagus he was plating.

“You are. Have you slept at all?”

When he didn’t answer, she was convinced. He’d been sleeping poorly before the farm, but he hadn’t had a wink of sleep since. Mikah seemed to be right—Ollie wasn’t ready to be pushed into that barn. Or was he having an increase in nightmares? She couldn’t even ask, because he was in no mood to answer. It wasn’t the time or the place. That time would have been yesterday on the way home, but instead they had to hear Willie Nelson’s greatest hits, on repeat, for three hours.

“Why the hell is there no band?” the kitchen door swung open so hard that it hit the dishwasher behind it. Mikah stormed through, nearly knocking a waitress over in the process. He rarely came into the room, let alone allowed anyone to see just how rocky his relationship was with Ollie. “It’s Sunday night!”

“I canceled them,” Ollie tossed the last plate of the night beneath the warmer. “Customers have been complaining.”

“The fuck they have, Oliver! You haven’t liked the bands since we started them! This place needs money!”

Ollie turned, looking more awake than he had all night. “It’s a RESTAURANT!” his voice boomed so loud that all movement stopped. “People come here to EAT! If you let me change the menu, we wouldn’t need the bands! You wouldn’t know that though, because you avoided the place until your girlfriend wanted you here! Because Shelby needed a reason to still be near this goddamn kitchen like a lost puppy!”

Mikah was moving directly towards Ollie with a fist ready for impact. Horror-struck, Sloan wasn’t the only one to gasp with a hand clapping over her mouth. Todd was quick enough to get behind Mikah and get his hands between Mikah’s arms and torso to drag him backwards. Once Todd had control, he held him back by one arm and his shirt, reminding him to cool down. It was like the whole kitchen had been ready for this moment to play out.

“Your jealousy is showing, Ollie!” Mikah tried to push off of Todd without success. “You’re pissed that I put the ring on her finger first! I was the first choice! You finally didn’t get what you wanted!”

Ollie’s head was shaking wildly, and Sloan was already grasping his arm and pleading with him to not up bring Christmas Eve. “She wasn’t even going to say yes, Mikah! She left your room after you asked!” Ollie growled, moving his arm out of Sloan’s hold. “Ask me how I know! I dare you!”

Sloan wasn’t sure which was worse—seeing Ollie break down yesterday thinking that he killed his dad, or watching Mikah’s heart break into a million pieces right before everyone’s eyes. A moment ago, he was ready to sock Ollie in the face over a band, but now he had no words left for his brother. Just a shaking head, glossy eyes, and a turned back as he stormed out of the kitchen. If Sloan saw how defeated Mikah was, Ollie saw it too. The man beside her sank his own shoulders realizing what he did. Which was exactly what he told Sloan he was worried about. He didn’t want to be the one to tell Mikah. With a single swing of his arm, Ollie tossed the plate he’d just prepared to the floor, sending someone’s filet mignon along with it. The glass plate burst into pieces on impact, littering the floor.

The room scrambled to return to work, acting like the blowout between two brothers didn’t just happen. Not sure if it was a good idea or not, Sloan placed her hand on Ollie’s back to soothe him. He exhaled with her soft touch even though he was still tense.

“Shit,” he whispered, clutching his hair. “Sloan, I didn’t mean to...”

“I know that’s not how you wanted to tell him,” she agreed, rubbing his back and not caring who saw at the moment.

His face fell into his hands, and he rubbed those eyes that she knew were exhausted. Knowing they were down a plate, leaving someone without a meal, Sloan took a step back to begin another. A pain-induced scream instantly erupted from her throat with her step. Without looking, she knew that there was a shard of glass from the plate deep within her heel. The pain surged from her foot all the way up the back of her leg, making her knees shake and buckle.

“Sloan!” Panic-stricken, Ollie pivoted and caught Sloan’s arm just as she reached out to balance on one foot.

She pressed her eyes closed tight, feeling waves of spasms spark from the open wound. “How big is it?” she asked, not wanting to really know. It felt huge. It felt like at least a half-inch was in imbedded into the heel. This was the wrong night to wear cheap shoes.

Ollie carefully took the injured foot into his hand and gave it the slightest turn. The heavy release of air through his nostrils clarified that it was a hefty chunk of the plate. It had to be. It had gone straight through the sole of the shoe. The sock within it was already squishy, feeling saturated with blood. Keeping her balance up so that she’d stay on the one good foot, Ollie pressed his lips to her temple.

“I’m going to have to take you to an emergency room. No way you can drive home with it like this, and I can’t remove it. This is my fault.”

“It’s not,” she cringed with agony. “Well, actually, it kinda is,” she giggled through it, trying not to add to his stress and blaming of himself. “But it’s also mine. I knew there was glass everywhere. I just didn’t think it was sticking straight up.”

That didn’t seem to ease his conscience any. The man was defeated. Sloan held on to him tightly, reassuring him that she would be fine, even though the sight of blood and hollandaise all over the floor was making her woozy. The kitchen staff was already on it, cleaning up the mess. Ollie lifted her onto the counter, and they found a bag to wrap around the shoe to prevent any further spillage of bodily fluids. Then, he knelt down and had her ride piggy back while a waitress opened the door to the bar for him.

Sloan saw Mikah pause the making of a mixed drink from the corner of her eye, hearing him worriedly question what had happened. Neither Ollie nor Sloan answered, because they were currently in a stare-off with the last thing they needed tonight. She could feel his heart begin to race through his back, and hers was now keeping pace. They were in huge trouble.

“Guess you don’t need to worry about missing those finals,” Ava’s eyes rolled fiercely before she disappeared into the crowd.

"Ollie,” Sloan gulped.

“I know.”

***

It took two hours in an emergency room waiting area, another hour in a room, a hefty amount of pain killers, shit coffee, and ten stitches before Ollie and Sloan could finally leave. Ollie could barely keep his head up for a majority of it. His exhaustion was catching up to him. Crutches were now a thing she had to deal with for the next week or two, depending on how it healed. It wasn’t until Ollie was helping her out of the car that she could feel the lidocaine wearing off. The dull ache was returning...meaning it was going to be a long night. Pain meds weren’t due again for another few hours.

The lights of the duplex were all off. Hallie had left a note this morning that she was planning to work a long shift tonight to make up for missing work on Friday. It was for the best that she was gone anyways. She’d work herself into a frenzy over this injury no matter what time of day it was, and currently, it was two in the morning.

It took Ollie multiple attempts to find the house keys buried in Sloan’s purse. Once found, the door was unlocked and opened to an eerily quiet home. Sloan could manage to turn on the light, but the thought of going up the stairs with crutches didn’t seem as doable. She could barely get the full groan out before Ollie was taking her crutches out from beneath her. Sloan grabbed his broad shoulders to steady herself.

Soon she was up in the air, wrapping herself around Ollie with her front to his. He made her feel like a feather as he held her with one hand and her crutches both in his opposite. It reminded her of the first time they’d gone up the stairs at Mulligan’s, and how they had avoided kissing at all costs. This time, he pecked his lips against hers.

“What are we going to do about Ava?”

With little enthusiasm, his head shook no. “I don’t know, and I’m not interested in overthinking that tonight.”

“Okay. What about Mikah?”

“Or that,” he muttered, finally making the landing of the second floor.

With his hands full, Ollie allowed Sloan to open the door to her bedroom. She was dropped down to her one good foot upon entry, where she retook her crutches. She’d never used these things in her life, already despising them. The hallways at school tomorrow were sure to be a challenge. Not as big of a challenge as Ava, who had ignored every text Sloan had sent while in the waiting room of the hospital. First thing tomorrow, Sloan needed to talk to her privately. One mention of what she saw tonight could land both her and Ollie in hot water. It’s not like she had seen them kissing, but it also didn’t look good that he was carrying her on his back. No one even knew that Sloan worked for Ollie, let alone was sleeping with him.

Not even caring that she was still dressed, Sloan dropped herself into the bed and threw the crutches to the floor. She was told to keep the foot elevated. Ollie was on top of it, lifting her foot and shoving a stack of clean laundry beneath it. Her eyes were already fluttering closed, due to a lot of codeine, but Ollie removing his shirt was enough to jolt her upright.

“What are you doing?” The panicked tone was not hidden. She was definitely panicking.

“Unlike you, I can’t sleep in my clothes.”

“No,” she lifted her hand to halt him. “You can’t sleep here.”

His brows lifted high on his head. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

“Sloan!”

“Ollie, I mean it.”

There was no way he was getting into this bed with her—Steve’s bed. Hallie was one thing. The man she was sleeping with less than a year after she lost her husband was not an option. That was an insult to Steve’s memory; she wasn’t ready for it and likely never would be.

“I haven’t slept in days,” he argued. “A lot of that is because of you. It’s two in the morning; it’s an hour back to the city, and you have no way to get to class tomorrow without me! It’s one night.”

“Then take the goddamn couch!” she motioned to the hallway that led to the stairs. “You have been an asshole to everyone all day! Your moods are tiring! Don’t be salty about this. I’m not ready when it comes to his bed! Take the couch.”

“It’s JUST A BED, Sloan!” he yelled so loud that she was sure the neighbors in the other duplex could hear. “It’s an object!”

The knot in her throat was accompanied by blurred vision. It was not just a bed. Ollie stood above her, waiting for her to cave in a moment of weakness that wasn’t going to happen. This bed was off limits. If her foot wasn’t currently bandaged, it would be down.

With a shaking head, Ollie grabbed his shirt and stormed out of the room. Sloan couldn’t grab the stupid crutches fast enough. When she did get them beneath her, they were catching on all the clothes littering the floor of the bedroom. She gave them a toss, hobbling her way into the hall. By the time she got to the stairs he was throwing open the front door.

“Ollie! Don’t go. You’re too tired!”

He stopped, peering up the stairs to her gripping the railing. “You’re right. I am tired. You’re not ready for whatever this is, and you tried to tell me that repeatedly. You just said it again. I didn’t listen last time, and now I am. I stupidly thought I was ready for this too. Mikah was hard enough to compete with. Steve doesn’t even give me a fighting chance, and I don’t have it in me to try. I’m tired.”

And with that, the door slammed behind him.

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