Salty

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36

S L O A N

After being out of work for a week, Sloan really believed that she was ready to get back to the grind of the kitchen. She was thankful to see it was a steady night. The more she could keep her mind focused on the task at hand, the better. School had been an absolute drag. Seven hours of sitting in classrooms, and she couldn’t even remember anything she’d been instructed on.

The crutches she’d been relying on were now placed in the corner of the kitchen, beside the timeclock. The stitches hadn’t been removed yet, but the foot could now take some sleight weight-bearing activities. At some point tonight, she’d have to give in and use the crutches, but for now she was doing okay. It was easy to forget the discomfort in the bottom of the heel when her heart ached this much. She was determined to be okay though. If she let herself hit rock bottom again, she knew she probably wouldn’t have her best friend anymore. There was no way she could put her heartache on Hallie again.

Fake it ’til you make it, she reminded herself as she approached the sink to wash her hands.

There were six people in the room and it felt completely vacant without Ollie here to give her a hard time. Without his presence, it felt like a completely different space. It was stupid how empty every kitchen felt this week—her own included. But this one just felt wrong. Three generations of Mulligans cooked from this very spot. Ollie cooking from anywhere else was just wrong. The pictures of his dad holding him up to the stove to stir a pot proved that.

“How you doing, Chef?” Mick’s hand landed on Sloan’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“The foot is okay,” she gave a half-hearted smile. “Thank you for asking.”

The elderly man’s head tilted slightly, and he tried to smile back, failing horribly. They both knew that wasn’t what he was referring to. Apparently, Sloan and Ollie sucked at keeping their relationship a secret. She peered over her shoulder to everyone else in the room. Their eyes were already fixated on her, seemingly wanting to know the same thing as Mick.

“I’m fine,” Sloan assured her coworkers, suppressing the tears that she refused to cry in this room. A very deep breath was taken before finishing what she wanted them to hear. “I shouldn’t be the one back here running this kitchen, and I’m sorry I couldn’t get him to stay for all of us.”

“You’ve got this,” he gave her shoulder a little shake.

This time he managed a smile that Sloan didn’t know she needed. Mick’s reassurance gave her confidence a small boost for the night. Even if he didn’t mean it, she needed to hear it. Years away from graduating, and only trained with practice in her own kitchen...Ollie leaving her this legacy was possibly the stupidest thing he’d ever done.

“Thank you,” she whispered. It was meant not just for Mick but for the entire kitchen staff who were now under her command. They all could have fled when they heard the news that Ollie had taken off for Seattle. This would have been so much worse without all of them.

The door of the kitchen swung open, and Sloan’s heart nearly leapt right through her ribcage until she realized she was looking at the wrong Mulligan brother. Mikah appeared with a fresh haircut—now undeniably a relation to Ollie. The two looked so similar that, for a brief second, she really thought Ollie had walked through that door and come back to her. They shared a look that said a lot. He might not get along with his brother, but Mikah felt abandoned too. His head motioned for her to follow to the bar, and he swung the door back open and held it. This couldn’t be good.

Limping her way to the door, her arms crossed over her stomach protectively. She was going to ask a question that she didn’t want to know the answer to. “Have you talked to him?”

“I got back from Seattle last night.”

“And?”

It seemed like a silly question to ask. She knew the answer. Ollie wasn’t here. This wasn’t like he was late for a shift. He wasn’t going to burst through the door on the other side of the restaurant and rush across the floor to her. Mikah’s face said it all—he wasn’t coming back.

“I tried,” his head shook. “I’m sorry, Sloan.”

Her vision blurred, but she swallowed down the knot that was forming in her throat with a bobbing head. “Is he okay?” her voice cracked, hating the thought of him alone in his own head. She needed to know.

“The closest he ever was to being okay was when he was with you. I’ve never seen him laugh like that with anyone.”

“Yeah, well,” she turned to return to the kitchen. She took it back; if she was going to cry, the kitchen where she fell in love with Oliver Mulligan was exactly where it needed to happen. “It was mutual.”

Every pair of eyes was back on her as she reentered the room. Losing her shit in front of Hallie or Ollie was one thing. Losing it in front of the entire kitchen staff was another. This had to stop. She took multiple deep breaths, and returned to the sink, talking herself out of the panic attack that was brewing. She didn’t need to wash her hands again, but she needed to keep them busy, and it was the first thing that came to mind. She scrubbed them until the water got so hot that it began to scold her skin, causing her to give up. The water was turned off, and she grabbed a towel to dry her wet hands. She was going to take this one night at a time to prove to herself that she could do this.

“What’s the special tonight, Chef?” Todd appeared at her side with an orange dry-erase marker.

“Comfort food.” Sloan accepted the marker and moved to the dry-erase board to write Chicken & Dumplings.

***

A week off the job, and her body ached like it had been a year. She got her ass kicked. It was busy, she almost started a fire, and it only took and hour before she was back on her crutches and using them to keep her weight off the injury. Her legs almost always hurt after a shift, but now her arms burned just as bad. Being the only chef in that kitchen was exhausting, but she did make it through the night without having a meltdown. No promises were made to herself on the rest of the night though.

The bathwater was extra hot tonight. Her entire body practically moaned as it sank beneath the bubbles. She quickly pulled her right foot out, placing her knee on the edge of the tub to keep her stitches out of the water. The instructions provided by the ER said baths were a definite no with stitches. There was no way she was denying herself of this simple luxury tonight. Another luxury was hanging in all his green glory from the shower wall, mocking her.

“It’s just me and you now, big guy,” her toe pushed the limp object up a few inches before allowing it to fall back to its hanging position. “If I moaned Ollie instead of Hulk, is that like a deal-breaker for us? Or...?”

“Umm,” Hallie’s head poked through the open bathroom door. “I’m just wondering if I heard you talking to your shower dildo?”

“You did,” Sloan confirmed, sinking further into the water until the bubbles hit her chin. “We’re discussing our terms. I’m trying to figure out if he’s into kinky shit.”

“Right,” Hallie agreed, gathering her long, blonde hair to the top of her head and pulling a rubber band from her wrist to secure it. “Well, I don’t mean to disrupt you and your Hulk. I just wanted to let you know I’m leaving for work. Double shift again tonight. So, you can take my bed if you want.”

It was a thoughtful gesture, but her head shook no. Her new bed was set to arrive sometime later in the week. Until then, she was okay with hanging out on the floor. She scored a sweet air mattress from TJ’s for ten dollars only to find out it had a hole in it. Now she was using a sleeping bag that Hallie stole from her own childhood bedroom. It was the same one that Sloan used to use whenever she needed an escape from her foster family. Times had definitely changed since then.

“I’ll be okay.”

“Okay,” Hallie agreed, lingering in the doorway as if to question if that statement was about the sleeping arrangement or okay in general. “I’m really proud of you, Sloan. Not that I want to see you cry, but it would be justifiable if you did. I won’t get mad.”

A lovely offer, but she really hadn’t cried since the airport. On the verge, yeah, many times. Like today when Mikah told her Ollie wouldn’t come back with him. Now, she just felt too tired to let the tears go. They’d probably come eventually, and when they did, she was going to be damn sure her best friend didn’t have to take the brunt of it. It was time the tables turned and for Sloan to be a better friend and roommate.

“I’ll be home at around seven. Call me if you need anything. Okay?”

“I’ll have breakfast ready for you when you get here,” Sloan promised, grinning at her bestie. “Waffles.”

Smiling back, Hallie nodded and closed the bathroom door.

***

After a bath that so long she pruned, Sloan washed, rinsed and dried herself before dressing in a loose, gray tank and the plaid pants Ollie’s mom had bought her for Christmas Eve. Chicken and dumpling leftovers from Mulligan’s were eaten while binging reruns of Beat Bobby Flay and Chopped, but it didn’t take long before she was dozing off. She couldn’t even remember who had won the last few episodes, even though she’d watched them at least ten times each. Tonight, and the entire week actually, were now catching up with her. The lights were turned off one by one until the duplex fell dark.

Once upstairs, Sloan brushed her teeth before finally sliding into the bright pink and purple sleeping bag that Hallie had loaned her. It was definitely made for a child. Even though she was short, she could have used a few more inches. No matter though. She still had her comforter, which she pulled up to her chin to keep warm. It took no time before she’d fallen back to sleep again.

She dreamt of burning down the Mulligan’s kitchen, by accident of course. Pancakes—which weren’t even on the menu. She’d forgotten to flip them. Dream Sloan had lit the whole place ablaze and not even that brought back its chef. Perhaps she’d left them there to burn on purpose. A way to get him to come home.

Before the fireman could even control the nonexistent blaze, she came out of the dream still sleepy and groggy. The fridge downstairs opened and shut, causing her to look at the clock above her on the dresser. Hallie had worked only one shift—which was common for quiet nights at the nursing home. It was a good thing most nights. The girl rarely had shifts that weren’t doubles anymore.

“Quiet night?” Sloan dropped herself back to the sleeping bag when she heard Hallie reach the top of the stairs. When she looked to the door for her answer, it wasn’t her best friend standing there waiting for her. For a moment she questioned whether or not she’d fallen back into a state of dreaming. But when her heart began to dance at the sight of Ollie in her doorway, she knew she was very much awake.

“You should never keep a key under the welcome mat,” he kept his head down as he walked further into the room. He dropped himself down the wall to sit beside her sleeping bag. “Two single girls should have some sort of alarm. Anyone could have broken in here. Now I’m always going to worry about that.”

Sloan sat up, ignoring the pleading for more home security. That was the last thing on her mind. “You came home?”

“I forgot something,” he lifted up the bottle slightly, his attention not lifting from the item in his hands.

“Is that my Worcestershire?”

"Technically, it’s mine. I was the one to actually purchase it.”

“Well technically, I had it in my hand first, and you stole it.”

“I don’t deserve you.”

The admission came out of nowhere. This time, Ollie lifted his gaze from the bottle to Sloan, and she could see the pain he was feeling behind that statement. There was no laugh—not even a hint of a smile to say that he was joking like he normally did. He didn’t seriously believe that?

“Ollie...”

“Please let me get this out,” his lip trembled, and he bit it to make it stop. It didn’t stop his eyes from dropping some heavy tears.

Sloan knew to keep quiet. When something upsets you, it’s hard to form why in your head—let alone voice it to someone when you may or may not be ready to do so. So many times, she wanted to explain to Hallie why she could no longer function after Steve. It was hard on both of them that she couldn’t. If Ollie needed to get something off his chest, she would let him have his time to do so. Wrapping her arms around her knees and drawing them closer to her chest, Sloan gave a single nod for him to continue.

“I have always been extremely selfish. I’ve told you that. It’s not a secret to anyone who knows me,” he sniffled and began to toy with the zipper of the sleeping bag they were sitting on. “I will never deny that Shelby was right to leave me. I was horrible to her. I always put myself first in that relationship, thinking that if I wanted her and my career, she would hang around. I banked on that. I never took her feelings into account. Honestly, I rarely cared what she was feeling.”

As much as Sloan didn’t like Shelby, that didn’t sound like much of a life to have. It seemed stupid to be jealous of the girl who once had Ollie when it sounded like she never really had him at all. The more she heard of their relationship, the more it seemed like she was the only one in it for years.

“And my dad,” his head shook wildly, searching for the right words. “Maybe I didn’t kill him, Sloan, but I didn’t help make things easier on him—and that feels just as bad.”

Oh, Ollie, her thoughts wished to be spoken. She unwrapped one of her arms to place a hand on his knee.

Ollie used the sleeve of his shirt to clean his face, and when done, he still couldn’t seem to bring himself to look anywhere but the zipper or the condiment that was still in his grasp. “The day of my dad’s wake—the first time I saw Mikah with Shelby—I promised myself that I would never be that selfish again. It was a punishment, and I was heeding it. Getting what I want cost me everything, and in the end, I had nothing that I wanted. Not the girl, not my dad, not the restaurant...I even lost my brother out of it.”

There were a couple of quick sniffles that came from his nose—the way a child does after crying after a tantrum when they hit the point of being tired. His head fell back to the wall behind them with a thud, and he pressed his eyes shut tight. The quiet only made Sloan’s anxiety for him worse. She lifted her hand to remove it from his knee, but he grabbed it before she could and held it tight, keeping it right in that spot.

“I’m breaking my last rule, and I’m going to be selfish again, Sloan.”

“You are?” she frowned.

His head bobbed yes, and now she could see the smile that was trying to lift at the corners of his lips. “I want something again. Selfishly, I’m going to take it.”

“Oh?” Her brows lifted. She was really hoping that this discussion was going where she was hoping it was going, because if he actually came back here to take that goddamn Worcestershire, she might kill him.

“I don’t deserve you,” he repeated, finally bringing himself to meet her awaiting eyes. “But I want you. It wasn’t the Worcestershire that I forgot.”

“No?” she laughed as tears sprung from her eyes. So much for not crying all week.

“No,” his head shook as he placed the bottle down beside him and peered back to her. His dimples caved into his glistening cheeks, and her heart instantly melted for them. “I forgot to tell you how much I love you.”

Sloan couldn’t get to him fast enough. One moment she was beside him and the next she was straddling his lap with tear-soaked lips pressed to his own. The flavor was a combination of salty that they both could come to terms with. Ollie’s arms wrapped around her tightly, bringing her body as close to his as he could possibly get her as she did the same with her arms around his neck.

“I love you,” she said hastily into his open mouth.

“I’m so sorry for running. I lose everything I love,” he squeezed her tighter, nibbling on the skin of her chin, down her neck to the exposed skin just above her breasts. “You’re the one thing that I don’t want to lose. Just you. I don’t think I could handle losing you.”

“You won’t,” she promised, tugging on his shirt as a way to let him know that it needed to come off...and soon. “So long as you never leave me to run that kitchen alone again.”

“Never again,” his head shook. “I have to attend grief counseling to get my menu back though.”

“Well played, Mikah,” Sloan laughed, lifting her shirt above her head and tossing it somewhere to be lost for the night. That was a plan she could get on board with. She’d even go with him.

“Where is the bed?” he got to his knees, bringing the woman wrapped around him along with.

“It was time to let it go. I threw it out. There’s a new one coming.”

His nose scrunched, eying the floor and their predicament. “Am I about to make love to you on a My Little Pony sleeping bag?”

Her head shook no with a smile that said she was up to no good. “Hallie said I could use her bed tonight.”

Ollie got to his feet so fast that she became dizzy. They were across the hall in no time, both grinning ear to ear. They collapsed into a very comfortable bed with a shared moan.

“I doubt this is what she had in mind when she said you could use this bed,” he chuckled, keeping himself between her legs and tucking her bangs behind her ear.

They shared a smile that made her cheeks hurt—a feeling she loved just as much as the man who made it happen. Ollie was the reason she could form a smile again. She loved him, and he loved her back. Her life went off the rails, and somehow, he got her back.

“Well,” Sloan unbuttoned the plaid shirt one button at a time, knowing she’d never take these smiles for granted again. “That will teach her to specify next time.”

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