Smoke on the Water Episode 12

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 12: Caroline

“Do you think Ford’s really serious about being done with Emily?”

Bree didn’t look up at my question, but her shoulders hitched in a shrug that was anything but casual. “Who knows? He hasn’t done more than mention it to me in passing.”

I could’ve let it go. Maybe should have. But the lull between lunch and dinner service left me with far too much time to think, and I couldn’t quite resist pressing, just a little. “Are you going to do something about that?”

Her gray gaze flicked up to mine. “About what?”

“The fact that he’s finally single and home for longer than a weekend.”

Was that a flare of panic in her eyes? She glanced down before I could be certain.

“Maybe he needs to be single for a while. To deal with whatever his shit is before he moves on with someone else.”

“Fair enough.” It would be truly crappy if Bree took a shot at something more with Ford, only to end up as his rebound. Still, he was showing some maturity on the relationship front that I hadn’t seen before. I could’ve said something to Bree about that, but ultimately, I let it drop. She’d make a move when and if she was ready. If that was never—well—that was her right and her loss. Even if I thought she and Ford were perfect for each other.

“What about you?”

Her question pulled me out of my musings. “What about me?”

“You apparently finally took a shot with the hottie firefighter. Everybody’s talking about you and Hoyt. How’s that going?”

I thought about last night’s dinner, and about that sexy as hell kiss in my kitchen. If there’d been any doubt that the attraction was mutual, he’d put it thoroughly to rest. “It’s going well.”

‘Well.’ Such a bland word for the reality.

I remembered Hoyt caging me in against the counter with that big, muscled body of his, and shivered. Hell, if there hadn’t been the chance of one of my siblings getting home at any moment, things might’ve gone a whole lot more than well. And that was a degree of reckless that was entirely unlike me. But I liked having his mouth on me. I loved the feel of those work-roughened hands touching me, and I wanted more.

God, when was the last time I’d actually wanted to be touched? When was the last time I’d trusted someone enough to want that?

Basically never.

So if I’d tossed restlessly half the night, imagining what it would’ve been like to drag him up to my room and explore each other as thoroughly as possible—well, at least I had a room to myself now.

“Uh-oh.” Bree’s muttering pulled me out of my fantasy. “Creep ahoy.”

I spotted Troy Lincoln settling in at a table in my section and groaned. He made no effort to hide the fact that he was watching me.

“I can cover him,” Bree offered.

“I won’t say no.” I hadn’t seen Troy since the showdown with Hoyt, and I wasn’t eager to start. Especially not with the obvious resentment written all over his face. At least he was sober this time of day. Probably.

Bree abandoned the ketchups she was marrying and wandered over to take his order. I pretended to focus on the menus I was wiping down, but I could feel his eyes on me in the way my skin crawled.


At the quiet voice, I snapped to attention to find Willa Hollingsworth standing by the bar. Except this wasn’t the girl I remembered hanging out with Gabi. That girl had been soft and a little bit fragile, with big hazel eyes that shone with hope and a heart that wanted to take in every animal on the island. This young woman had a wary toughness in her expression that spoke of a lack of trust in the world. It was a position I knew well from personal experience, and my heart went out to her for whatever had happened to destroy her innocence. Was it the near drowning? Or what came after?

“Willa! Welcome back to Hatterwick.” I moved around the bar to embrace her. “It’s good to see you.”

Her answering hug came after only a few moments’ hesitation. “You, too.”

“How was Beaufort?” I knew that was where her parents had relocated when they’d left the island.

“I wouldn’t know.”

I blinked at the blunt statement that clearly implied she hadn’t been in Beaufort with her parents. Which begged the question: Where had she been?

A distinct tension hung so heavily around the girl, there might as well have been a neon sign shouting I don’t want to talk about it above her head. So I let it go. There’d be time to dig deeper later if the opportunity arose.

“Jace said you were looking for a job.”

She nodded. “Anything I can find.”

“It so happens we had a server quit last week, so there’s an opening. Interested?”


“Have you ever waited tables before?”

“No.” For a moment her head dipped, her caramel brown hair swinging forward to hide her face before she lifted it again. “Is that a problem?”

“So long as you’re willing to learn, you can be trained.”

Because it was procedure, I went through the formal interview questions, even though I fully intended to hire her. Such was the prerogative of living in a small town. Then I described the job itself and the available hours. “You in?”

“Absolutely. I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”

“Okay. You can start tomorrow, after I adjust the shift schedule.” I filed the whole thing under the win column, even though training always took a bit of extra time and effort.

“Thank you!”

“Now, let’s talk about—”

“Caroline Sofia Carrera!”

The furious shout had my shoulders hunching up to my ears, even before I whirled to see my father barging into the tavern. In less than a second, I registered the clenched fists, narrowed eyes, and muscle fluttering in his stubble-shadowed jaw. His cheeks were flushed nearly purple with rage as he stalked across the room.

Panic fluttered like a live thing in my throat, but I automatically slid in front of Willa. Not that he had eyes for anyone but me. “Dad.”

“You ungrateful puta. How dare you? After everything I’ve done for you. Don’t even bother to deny it. I know you were the one behind the others.”

Every eye in the place was on us, but I didn’t dare take my focus off my father. “I can see you’re upset—”

“Upset? Upset?” His voice rose loud enough to rattle the glassware. Then it dropped dangerously low. “You left. Without a word. Just like she did.”

He meant my mother. I’d known this was a possibility when I elected to leave a note. At the time, it had seemed better than a direct confrontation. Now, I wasn’t so sure.

Though I struggled to stay calm, my voice shook. “You would have tried to stop me.”

“Damned straight. You have no right to—”

As emboldened as I was mortified by having witnesses, I let my own temper off its leash, just a little. “No right to a life of my own? That’s where you’re wrong, old man. I have every right. All three of us are legal adults. You have no hold over any of us anymore, and we choose to live on our own. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

He took a hard step closer, and everything in me wanted to recoil, to hide from the blow I was certain was coming. But he had enough control not to let loose that much in public. No, he saved the punches and slaps for private. With plenty of threats about what would happen if we didn’t hide the resulting injuries. And they’d come much fewer and farther between since Rios got big enough to fight him. But I could see the promise of retribution in his eyes.

I dimly registered the sound of fast footsteps. Then multiple bodies were sliding between me and my father.

“I’m gonna need you to step back.”

Hoyt. I almost sagged in relief. Did I broadcast some kind of alert every time I panicked that he could read as easily as the Bat Signal?

He’d brought friends this time. At least three other guys in navy SFFD T-shirts stood shoulder to shoulder, forming a human wall.

“This is none of your concern.”

“As you’re up in Caroline’s grill, I’d say it is.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Her boyfriend. The one who’s not going to hesitate to step between you and her.”

I closed my eyes. Dad had probably already heard. Maybe. But somehow I felt it would be worse that he hear it from Hoyt directly.

“Now, do we have a problem, Mr. Carrera?”

For a long, tense moment, nobody spoke.

“No. No problem. Just a disagreement with my daughter.” I couldn’t see my father over all the shoulders, but I could hear him reining in the temper in the face of a greater implied threat.

“Maybe circle back to it later, when you’re calmer,” Hoyt suggested in an even tone. “And not in her place of work.”

For a long humming beat, I waited, expecting my father to tell Hoyt exactly where he could shove that idea. Instead, he cleared his throat. “You’re probably right. Apologies.” The last word came out flat and entirely insincere.

He turned on heel and left without another word.

Then arms were sliding around me as Hoyt pulled me in, wrapping me up in his bigger body. “Hey, you okay?”

My throat went thick, because no, I definitely wasn’t okay. I was shaking. This whole nightmare scenario had combined two things I hated: dealing with my father at all and being a public spectacle. I’d spent so much time being a public spectacle.

Hoyt stroked a hand down my back. He felt warm and solid, and I wanted so desperately to lean on him because I hadn’t had anyone to do that with basically ever. It wasn’t the same with my siblings. Rios did his best to take off whatever pressure he could, but there was no escaping the weight of being the oldest, of watching out for both my younger siblings in a volatile household. Of being the one who looked like Mama.

“What are you even doing here?”

“We were doing a training exercise. Bree texted to say there was trouble, so we came down.”

I’d never been so glad that the firehouse was only two blocks down the street or that Hatterwick was the epitome of a small town. Someone had let him know, and he’d come for me. Did he have any idea how appealing that was? The fact that he was continually willing to step up for me made it feel like maybe this was the start of something real between us. Because it did, I let myself burrow in, holding on to him as an anchor in the storm that was my life.

“Saint Hoyt the Savior, coming down for your hero fix for the day.”

Hoyt’s body went stiff at Troy’s mocking tone. “I don’t recall asking for your opinion, Lincoln. I believe I made my position clear the last time I saw you. Stay the hell away from Caroline.”

“I’m not doing a damned thing to her. Just came in for a late lunch. It’s not like there are that many options.”

“Maybe consider embracing the concept of brown bagging it.”

“Whatever. I’m sick of your shit, McNamara.”


Not wanting the situation to escalate, I squeezed Hoyt’s waist. “It’s fine. He’s not causing trouble.”

“See?” Troy waved expansively. “Just enjoying this fine establishment.”

Right. Because we all believed that.

Hoyt made a low, growling noise.

A radio crackled, and one of the other firefighters spoke. “L-T, we’ve gotta jet.”

I felt him shift into work mode, his attention splitting toward the job. Hoyt stroked a thumb along my cheek. “I have to go.”

Chances were, whatever he was rushing off to deal with was dangerous. That was the nature of his job. It was something I’d have to come to terms with if this thing between us was going to work.

“Be careful, okay?”

“Always.” Brushing a fast kiss to my lips, he bolted for the door.

I prayed he’d be safe.

Feeling steadier than I had any right to be after everything that had happened, I turned back to the handful of gawkers. “Show’s over. Go back to your meals.”

Willa stood frozen where I’d left her by the bar.

Determined to get back to some semblance of normal, I pasted on a smile. “Sorry about that. Now, where were we?”