Smoke on the Water Episode 11

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 11: Hoyt

I left the firehouse well after the end of my shift, having stuck around to assist with some training exercises with the volunteer firefighters who helped round out our small department. It had been a long few days. In my off-time between my last two shifts, I’d been pulled in to help my family diagnose and repair an engine problem on the cabin cruiser Drew had purchased with long-term plans to book fishing trips for tourists, so I’d barely spent any time at my own place before heading back to work, where we were slammed with several medical calls and a string of trash can fires at the same end of the island as the beach house that had burned. We’d been able to get out there and put out the flames before they’d jumped to the houses themselves, save for one, and that one had been caught by the renter on premises and put out with a garden hose. In all three cases, the origin had been a smoldering cigarette butt. If there’d been only one, we might have chalked it up to carelessness. But three set not more than an hour apart, at houses within the same mile stretch as the original arson? That was something else. Were they connected? I didn’t know. If there’d been progress on the beach house fire investigation, Chief wasn’t sharing. It was just as possible we were still in that holding pattern.

During all those days, I hadn’t communicated with Caroline beyond a quick text to make sure she’d gotten everything she needed. Her answer had been one word—Yep—and nothing more. She hadn’t been at the house during my brief stay at home. Working, probably. But the whole thing made me feel like our disagreement over who was paying for supplies had been a real fight that was fucking up a real relationship, and I wanted to fix it.

That would require finding her first. She hadn’t mentioned when she was moving in. I wasn’t sure if she intended to paint beforehand or was more eager to get out of her father’s house. If I were a betting man, I’d have wagered on the latter, but I suspected that her getting her own place and taking her siblings with her was going to involve a more careful extraction than it would for normal people. Given her insistence on driving herself to our dinner, I sensed that my showing up at their house looking for her wouldn’t go over well if her dad was around. I didn’t want to cause her any more trouble than she already had, so I’d be patient. Meanwhile, I’d figure out what I could do to make up for the fact that I’d probably wounded her pride over the renovation supplies.

All intentions for planning flew out the window when I got home and spotted Caroline’s car peeking out from behind some of the overgrown beach grass. Faint strains of music reached me from her side of the house as I stepped out of my truck. She was here.

My exhaustion fell away as I climbed the steps and made my way around to her door. I just… needed to see her. The closer I got, the better I could make out the music—something old school. Was that Dean Martin? My mom loved him. The windows were cracked, and I heard the faint sound of her singing along to “Mambo Italiano” in a rich alto. The sound of it made me grin. I liked the idea that she had music while she was working. At least, I assumed she was working, either on the house or on unpacking, since she was here instead of on shift at the tavern. It sounded like she was having fun.

Without giving myself time to overthink it, I knocked.

A moment later, the music turned down. Then the door swung open and there she stood in a slouchy t-shirt and cutoffs, her feet bare, her hair gathered up in another of those messy buns. She looked good enough to eat.

“Hi.” Brilliant, McNamara. She should throw herself into your arms immediately.

Her lips curved into a smile that was a little bit shy around the edges, but seemed genuine. “Hey.”

Maybe the whole text exchange hadn’t been as much of a thing as I feared? We didn’t know each other that well yet. Maybe I read a bunch of irritation into her tone that wasn’t there.

“I saw your car and thought I’d come over to check in.”

She rocked a little on those bare feet, drawing my attention to her toes. They were painted chili pepper red. For some reason, I found that tiny glimpse behind the curtain unaccountably sexy. I loved knowing that behind that usually reserved demeanor, she had sassy toes. Could toes be sassy?

“Um… do you want to come in?”

I yanked my focus back to her face to find her mouth pursed in amusement. Damn if that didn’t just make me want to kiss her. “Yeah.” I stepped inside. “How’s the painting going?”

“It’s finished.” She waved a hand.

Finally dragging my attention away from her lips, I glanced around the room. Then I did a double take and straight up stared. The floors were still a scarred mess that needed refinishing, but all the walls had a fresh coat of paint in a pale, buttery yellow. The trim was a crisp, bright white. Even the ugly ass kitchen cabinets had been painted a deep turquoise that I wouldn’t have thought would work with the yellow walls but still somehow did.

“Holy shit.”

“I’m so sorry. I should have run paint colors by you before I went and did it.” She caught her lush bottom lip between her teeth, her eyes turning worried.

“No, no. I’m not upset. It looks cheerful and happy. I’m just amazed at how much you managed to get done in the last few days. Are you secretly Wonder Woman?”

The distress melted away, and she laughed. “No. My brother’s friends are back on-island for the summer, so between all of them and Gabi, I had a full painting crew. None of us have slept much, but everything is painted.”

“Shit. Do y’all hire out?”

That laugh rolled out again, rich and easy. “Sadly, they’d charge you more than the beer and pizza they charged me.”

I moved further into the room, examining their work. They hadn’t half-assed it. “I think it would be worth it.”

“If you really want, I can ask.”

She’d used a big wooden wire spool with one side removed as a kitchen table. It, too, had been painted that deep turquoise. A quartet of wooden crates was tucked beneath it for stools. The jar of wildflowers in the center of the table made me smile as I thought back to our date the other night.

“This is great. Really clever—what’s it called?—upcycling?”

“I’m gonna turn the other round into a coffee table, but I’ve still got to find something for legs.” She stood with her hands shoved into her back pockets. “We’re still working on picking up furniture. Starting with air mattresses on the floor for now, and shelves made out of cinder blocks and wood planks. It’s not much, but it’s a start. It’ll do until the next payday when we go pick up the sofa Beachcomber Bargains is hanging onto for us and see what else we can come up with. Gabi’s making it her life’s mission to dumpster dive on the rich side of the island.”

I met her gaze, and her golden cheeks deepened in color, as if the admission embarrassed her a little.

“Hey, they throw out some good stuff.”

“They do. And it’s fun to see what you can find and turn into something new.”

It struck me then that she looked happy in a way I hadn’t seen before. As if a weight had slid off her shoulders. If I’d had any doubts about offering this place to her, they died a swift death. Being able to take something off her plate was worth it. She’d nested so fast into having her own home, and I was fascinated to see what other little touches she added as things progressed.

“So is the move still in progress, or are you really here?”

“Officially here. This is the first night in the new place.”

I realized I hadn’t heard anyone else since I’d arrived. “Is Gabi not here to celebrate?”

“Oh no, she ran away to hang out with her friends. I think she was afraid I’d put her back to work.”

I didn’t want to do anything to dim that happiness, but I had to ask. “How did your dad take it?”

She shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know. I haven’t told him directly. We moved our stuff out while he was at work today, and I left a note without my new address. I predict it’s going to go over like a lead balloon.”

Ah. Hence why her car was partly hidden. 

“You worried?”

“Not any more than usual. Rios will be home later.”

Hector was a controlling son of a bitch. In all likelihood, he was only just getting home to find out that all his children had defected today. Lead balloon was probably an understatement for how he’d react. She might not have told him where she was moving to, but it probably wouldn’t take him too long to find out.

“How about I stick around in the meantime, just to make sure you’re okay? You ought to be perfectly safe in your new place—” Please, God, don’t make a liar out of me. “—but I don’t like the idea of you being here by yourself, just in case.” I braced myself for a turn in mood. For an accusation that I was overstepping. For annoyance that I was somehow raining on her parade.

Instead, a mix of relief and pleasure flickered over her face. “Well, at least let me return the favor and feed you some dinner as a thank you.”

“I will never say no to food. But I have one condition.”

One dark brow winged up. “Which is?”

“You let me help. I don’t sit around well.”

“That’s a deal. Wash up. I was just getting ready to start cooking.”

I moved to the sink. “What’s on the menu?”

“Pan seared whatever fish my brother caught this morning, with mango salsa and cilantro-lime rice.” She paused, one hand on the open fridge door. “Wait, are you one of the soap people?”

“Soap people?”

“The ones who don’t have the enzyme to taste cilantro properly. Bree’s like that. She says it tastes like somebody dumped a bottle of dish soap into the food.”

“So far as I know, I’m safe there.” I eyed the ingredients she’d piled on the counter. Mango, red onion, jalapeno, red bell pepper, a lime, and a bunch of green stuff I presumed was cilantro. “Oh, you’re hard-core making your own fresh salsa?”

“It’s so much better that way.”

“I approve. What can I do?”

“Salsa first, so we should get to chopping. You take the bell pepper and onion. I’ll do the mango and jalapeno.”

She turned the music back up before dragging out a couple of plastic cutting mats and knives, and we got to work. Because the house’s kitchen had been truly cut in half, there was minimal counter space. That meant we were shoulder to shoulder at the lone stretch of butcher-block-style formica that wasn’t taken up by the sink. I was extra aware of her beside me as the music rolled into Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight.”

“So you’re a fan of The Rat Pack?”

“This is my happy cooking music playlist. Since I’ve got nobody to please but myself here tonight, I’m indulging.”

My knife thunked down hard through the bell pepper as my brain took a very inappropriate detour about how I could please her. If I didn’t get my head on what I was actually supposed to be doing, I’d lose a finger.

“I grew up on this music. My mom loves them.”

“They’re classics for a reason. No matter how much Rios and Gabi roll their eyes at me.”

I carefully scraped out the seeds and ribs and began to dice. “Pretty sure it is a sibling’s sworn duty to give us shit.”

She neatly halved the mangos. “Do you and Drew rag on each other?”

“Absolutely. He’s given me plenty of crap for buying this house. He thinks it’ll be an albatross.”

“Rude.” Caroline lifted a hand to stroke the freshly painted cabinet. “She just needs some love.”

“That’s what I said. I’m not afraid of hard work. I think the payoff will be worth it in the end.”

When she didn’t answer, I glanced over to find her head bowed, her fingers flexing on the spoon she was using to scrape the scored mango flesh into a bowl. Abruptly, she muttered something I recognized as a curse in Spanish and dropped the spoon and fruit. Then her hand was fisting in my shirt, dragging me closer to close her mouth over mine.

Oh, thank God.

I dropped the knife onto the counter with a clatter and gripped her hips, hauling her closer. Her arms twined around my neck, and her lips opened beneath mine. There was nothing hesitant or innocent about this kiss. It was incendiary. Everywhere her curvy body pressed against mine set me aflame. It took all the control I had not to take over and back her against the nearest counter so I could plunder her mouth more thoroughly. She’d started this. I wasn’t going to push for more than she wanted to give, even if my dick was standing up to shout, “Hooray!”

I was dimly aware of “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” winding down when she eased back. Her eyes were blown so wide, the irises had all but disappeared. Her breasts rose and fell against my chest with each breath, and those beautiful lips were pink and swollen from mine.

I couldn’t stop myself from asking first thing to pop into my head. “Am I to take that to mean this dating thing is real?”

The corner of that gorgeous mouth quirked. “If you have to ask, I didn’t do my job well enough.”

I grinned, and this time I did back her against the counter, caging her in between my arms as I leaned in close. “Maybe we should try it again, just to be sure.”