Smoke on the Water Episode 10

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 10: Caroline

“Welcome home! Thank you for helping.” I wrapped Ford in a hug and found myself enveloped by big, burly arms that hit me even higher than they had when he’d been home at Christmas. “My God, did you grow again?

Ford laughed and scooped a hand through his mop of brown hair that was well past needing a cut. “Thank you. You’re welcome. And yeah. I’m up to 6’ 3” now.”

“What are they feeding you down in Georgia?” He’d headed to UGA on a track and field scholarship, so I expected him to be in good shape, but this was getting ridiculous.

He patted his flat, muscled abs. “Anything I want.”

“You men and your ridiculous metabolisms,” I groused. “Jace, bring it in.”

The last of the Wayward Sons stepped in for a hug himself. “Good to see you, Caroline.”

“Likewise.” I pulled back to study him, noting the shadows in his eyes that hadn’t been there last time he’d been home.

Something big on his mind.

He’d sort it out with the boys. And if he didn’t, I could do a little sisterly poking. What was the point of having three extra unofficial brothers if I couldn’t treat them all like family?

“So, you and Hoyt McNamara, huh?” Ford prompted.

I glared at Rios. “Seriously? You already told them?”

“Hey, I didn’t tell them anything.”

“Actually, I heard it from Mimi,” Ford admitted. “She’s delighted, by the way.”

I’d always loved Delilah Washington. A free-spirited, hippie-type artist, she was an unexpected partner to Ford’s biological mom, Florence Donoghue. But the two women had a bond like no couple I’d ever seen, and they’d been unofficial moms to the rest of us. Given we were all missing solid maternal figures in our lives, that had always been appreciated. But damn if the woman didn’t adore her gossip.

Because they were all staring at me expectantly, I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Things with Hoyt are complicated.” That had been my party line, and I was no closer to an actual decision on whether we were real or fake dating than I had been when the initial question was posed. After the whole sort of fight we’d had about him paying for any home improvement materials, I wasn’t even sure if real was still on the table. I hadn’t seen him during his two days off before he went back on duty.

“Well, yeah, dating your landlord could end up a sticky situation,” Jace pointed out.

I narrowed my eyes. “The thought had occurred to me.”

“Seems like he’s being good to you,” Sawyer put in. “That’s the important thing. Well, and that he makes you happy. Does he?”

Whatever this thing with Hoyt was couldn’t be summed up so simply as him making me happy. Particularly as we hadn’t actually done any actual dating besides the one dinner at his place. The dinner where he’d taken the time to pick flowers, even though he wasn’t even moved in yet. The one where he hadn’t pushed for a decision on our status, even though that had been the original point.

“He’s good to her,” Gabi insisted. “He’s stood up for her in front of jerks on several occasions.”

My sister wasn’t going to be satisfied until I actually said yes.

I waited for Rios to point out that we weren’t even really dating at this point. But for once, my brother was quiet. And if he hadn’t already spilled that detail to his friends, maybe he didn’t plan to. At least, not until I’d made whatever decision I was going to make.

“That’s good enough for me,” Ford announced. “So you’ve got primer up in here. What about the rest of the place?”

“Gabi, Rios, and I were here until two this morning, knocking out the primer.” A decision I knew I’d regret about halfway through work tonight. “I’m hoping we can get the first coat on everywhere else before I have to leave for my shift at the tavern.”

Jace clapped his hands. “Then let’s get to it.”

“There’s pizza in it for all of you when we break.”

“Always a valid form of payment,” Sawyer insisted.

I gave them the quick tour and divvied up assignments. We elected to knock out the downstairs first. I passed out the rollers and paint trays I’d picked up from the hardware store and reluctantly charged to Hoyt’s account. I still didn’t like this feeling that I wasn’t fully paying my way, so I’d make up for it in doing a hell of a good job with the actual work.

One of the guys started a classic rock playlist on his phone, and we dove in. Conversation was easy and simple—a lot of the boys ragging on each other, catching up in the way of friends who were never truly apart, no matter where life took them.

“So, I broke up with Emily.”

I glanced over at Ford, who was dutifully applying a coat of warm, buttery yellow to the living room wall. “Isn’t this, like, the third time?”

“I thought it was the fourth,” Sawyer remarked.

“No, no. Remember? There was that other time they broke up during sophomore year,” Jace added. “Over the—what was it?—the thing with her roommate?”

To say that Ford and his college girlfriend had been on again off again for their entire college career was an understatement. I’d been hearing secondhand stories of their relationship since he came home for Christmas freshman year.

Ford’s broad shoulders hunched up toward his ears, and he kept his attention on the wall. “Counting all the times either of us broke up with each other, it was five.”

In my opinion, if breaking up was ever on the table, the correct answer was breaking up and staying that way. But I wasn’t sure Ford was ready for that kind of tough love yet, so I held my tongue.

Rios had no such qualms about busting Ford’s chops. “Are we taking bets on how long it takes you two to get back together?”

“No. I think we’re really done this time.” Ford refilled his roller. “I mean, the fact that we keep going off again is a sign, right? There’s some underlying reason for that, and that’s not a good basis for a long-term relationship.”

Sawyer shot a fist into the air. “He can be taught!”

Ford scowled. “Man, don’t be a dick.”

Jace clapped him on the shoulder. “We’re not being dicks. But seriously, I think this is a good thing. She’s messed up your head enough. Maybe take some time on your own, figure out what you really want in a partner. Or more importantly, in life. Let the partner come later.”

Look at these guys, making solid relationship suggestions.

Ford dropped his shoulders and nodded. “Yeah, I think that’s a good idea.”

I dipped my brush into the paint and continued cutting in at the edges. Bree was going to be really happy to hear this. Whether she had a thing for Ford or not, she’d always despised Emily. Maybe with her out of the way, Bree could finally figure out how she really felt. Would she be brave enough to take that leap this summer or let the opportunity pass her by?

Rios hauled his tray across the room and refilled it with paint. “So Ford is newly single. What’s new with you, J?”

“Well, there’s the fact that my parents have every expectation that I’m going to finish school next year and go directly to Ivy League law school. Do not pass ‘Go.’ Do not collect $200. Go directly to jail. It’s the last thing I want to do. I’m trying to decide what to do about it.”

“What would you want to do if your parents’ opinions didn’t come into play?” It was a question I wasn’t sure Jace had ever considered.

“Hell, I don’t know. I know I don’t want to be a lawyer. I don’t want to be a suit. The idea of corporate anything kills my soul. And anything else is going to cause a family war. I need to know that Willa’s okay before I think about rocking the boat that much.”

Beside me, Sawyer tensed. “That sounds like she’s not okay. What’s going on?”

“What’s going on is that she is now eighteen and determined to get out from under our parents’ thumbs. She’s always resented that they took her off-island after…” Jace waved a hand, encompassing the whole messy situation.

The same night Gwen Busby had disappeared from a beach party, Willa had nearly drowned while trying to save a dog on the ocean side of the island. She’d gotten caught in a riptide. Sawyer had been the one to save her. The one to keep up the rescue breathing until paramedics could arrive. I didn’t know any of the other details about what had happened after, only that her parents had moved off Hatterwick, and taken Willa with them against her protests. Jace and Willa’s grandparents were still here, but none of the rest of the family had been back to visit besides Jace.

“So, what are her plans?” Gabi’s voice was cautiously hopeful. She and Willa had been friends, but I knew that they’d fallen apart over the last couple of years. Privately, I thought that was more because of Willa’s parents than Willa herself, for all the same reasons they hated Jace being friends with Rios.

“She’s moving back to the island. Supposed to get here at the end of the week. She’ll be looking for a job, so if anybody knows of anything, please let me know.”

I perked up at that. “Well, it may not pay enough, but we just lost a server at the tavern and haven’t replaced her yet. I feel certain I can talk Ed into taking her on.”

“Oh, thanks. That would be awesome. I’ll pass that along.”

“Obviously, her first priority will be a job and a place to live,” Rios said. “Think she’ll stay with your grandparents?”

Jace shook his head. “No, she’s very insistent that she be on her own. She doesn’t want help from any of them.” He lowered his voice. “Not that it’s likely our parents would help her stay on-island anyway, given how they feel about the place.”

I wondered what the Sutters would do or say with the return of their granddaughter. Except Ford and his moms, none of the rest of us had great family situations. There was a lot of strain and tension in the Hollingsworth household. I didn’t know if their grandparents would welcome Willa or not.

Gabi cocked her head, considering. “Why is Willa so determined to do everything on her own?”

Jace’s jaw went hard. “Let’s just say that our parents aren’t great people. And the things they’ve put her through the last couple of years…” He shook his head again. “Being away at school, I didn’t realize how bad it was. And I don’t think she’s told me everything. It’s good she’s getting out on her own.”

We all exchanged worried looks. Somehow, the lack of details made everything he didn’t describe that much worse.

After a long minute, Gabi asked, “Is she going off to college in the fall?”

“Right now, she’s taking some time. She wants to come home and see what she can manage. I’ll help however I can.” Jace’s tone made it clear he didn’t think it would be enough to make up for whatever she’d been through while he was off at school.

All of this was just proof that it didn’t matter what social class you came from, you could always have shitty family. It was why we fought so hard to hang on to the one we’d made.

I laid a hand on his arm. “You know we’ll all look out for her, too, the way y’all have always looked out for me and Gabi.”

“Appreciate that. She can definitely use some people she can trust.”

Don’t we all.

I thought again of Hoyt. Obviously, I trusted him on some level. He’d proved himself to be an honorable man. But did I trust he could handle whatever might come of us being legitimately involved? Did I trust him enough to take a risk with my heart? Because there was no question that if I made that choice, I’d catch feelings. That high school crush had only been the beginning, and he was so much more now than he’d been back then.

There was only one way to find out.