Smoke on the water Episode 14

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 14: Caroline

What a difference a day made.

This time yesterday, I’d been on top of the world. Or as close to it as I dared to reach. I’d been cuddled up in this chair with a thoughtful, sexy man who miraculously wanted me, and I’d thought that maybe, finally, something in life was going my way. That I’d finally earned something good.

That was over now. Or would be as soon as Hoyt got home.

I thought of the text he’d sent midmorning, an hour or two after the news of his truck being torched had spread across the island like—well—wildfire.

Hoyt: I want to see you when I get off shift.

If I’d needed any confirmation that this whole mess was my fault, that was it.

I’d considered heading straight to the firehouse to talk to him. But in the wake of the fire, he’d be working, doing investigative stuff and talking to the police. When he dumped me, I preferred that be here at home instead of in front of other people. I’d had enough of being a spectacle.

Of course, everyone was talking about it during my shift at the tavern. Someone had been ballsy enough to set his truck on fire in the firehouse parking lot. Speculation was running rampant about who it had been, and more than one pair of eyes fell on me. It had gotten so bad that an hour into my shift, Ed had taken pity and sent me to the back to work on inventory. Not something we usually did during service, but I was grateful for the reprieve.

Rios and Gabi had done their best to distract me once I’d gotten home. Neither of them brought up the obvious question: Would Hoyt ask us to move out?

But, damn, I’d thought about it all night as I’d tossed and turned, before finally giving up on sleep a couple of hours before dawn. We’d put so much work into painting this place, and I’d poured so much heart and effort into making it a home for all of us. Sure, it wasn’t much—yet—but it was the first thing that had been ours in… ever. Now we’d have to leave because Hoyt wasn’t ever going to want to see me again.

I’d warned him that getting involved with me would make him enemies. He’d blown that off, said it was no big deal.

But even he couldn’t dispute that this was a big freaking deal. This wasn’t just some verbal altercation. His truck had been destroyed. Maybe not blown up, but I’d been one of the gawkers to drive by. I’d seen the charred husk of the aftermath, had smelled the toxic stink of burnt rubber, melted plastic, and scorched metal, even from inside my car. There’d be no salvaging the vehicle.

I wasn’t due at work until the lunch shift, and there were no cleaning jobs on my calendar this morning. I ought to try to snatch a few more hours of sleep, but I knew I wouldn’t settle until this thing with Hoyt was finished. So I sat on the second floor porch, curled up in his chair, waiting and grieving what might have been.

I was still up there when someone pulled into the drive. I recognized Pete Novak behind the wheel. Hoyt slid out of the passenger side of the SUV and waved him off. Even from here, exhaustion was clear in every line of his body. He lifted his head, spotting me.

“Stay put. I’m coming up.”

Just as well. My siblings were still asleep. It was better if we got this over with now, so I’d have time to figure out what to tell them in terms of what came next.

A few minutes later, he stepped out of his bedroom and waved me out of his chair. My heart sank as I rose because it felt like him waving me out of his life. I’d known this was coming, but God, it hurt. After all the time and effort I’d put into depending only on myself, how had I come to want him, to depend on him, this quickly?

Hoyt sank into the chair, his hand snaking out to grab mine and tug. Off-balance, I stumbled, falling straight into his lap. His arms wrapped around me, and his face buried in the messy knot of my hair. He sighed, a huge exhale that shifted us both.

“Ah, that’s better. It’s been a really shitty twenty-four hours.”

What the hell was happening?

“I heard.” Struggling to find my mental footing again, I launched into the apology I’d been planning since yesterday. “Hoyt, I’m so sorry. I knew you’d get blowback from being involved with me. And I just wanted to say that I get it. I understand.”

He lifted his head. “You understand what?”

“Why we have to call this off.”

There. I’d said it first. Look at me being all brave.

His brows drew together, his mouth tipping down into a frown. “What are you talking about?”

“Your truck was torched. It was my fault.”

For a long moment, he just stared at me. “Unless you’ve suddenly developed powers of teleportation, you didn’t light the match, so how is it your fault?”

“This whole thing has to be because you’re involved with me. Because you stood up for me. Somebody’s striking back at you.” I loosed a bitter laugh. “Jesus, it’s not even a short list. Why wouldn’t you want to distance yourself?”

That frown dug even deeper. “Do you want me to distance myself?”

“Of course not!”

His face relaxed. “Okay, then.”

“What I want isn’t the point. You—”

Gently, he pressed a finger to my lips. “Hush for a minute and let me tell you about my day.”

I subsided and listened as he told me what he could about the investigation. “It wasn’t a sophisticated attempt. A couple of rags soaked in gasoline. One tossed through the windows I’d left cracked, one shoved into the engine compartment from beneath the truck. Whoever did it was in and out fast. There’s footage from the bank ATM across the street of an adult male suspect entering the parking lot with a plastic shopping bag in hand. No face or distinguishing features visible. He wore a hat and sunglasses and seemed to know where the camera was. But we had a timestamp, so the police spent the day following up with several folks I’ve pissed off since I got back on-island. Among them, Troy Lincoln, your dad, Chet Banks, and Marcus Hoffman. Your dad and Marcus had alibis. Both at work. Neither Troy nor Chet can account for their whereabouts during the window in question, so the police are getting warrants to search their residences and vehicles.”

I soaked that in. “Do you think either of them did it?”

“Hard to say. Proving who committed arson isn’t always easy. A lot of the evidence is destroyed both by the fire and the suppression efforts. If there’s no metaphorical smoking gun or, in this case, handy gas can with fingerprints available, it’s tough to tie the crime to a particular suspect. But they’re both on the police’s radar.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, it is for me. Even if I were fully qualified to investigate, it’d be a conflict of interest. But if I had to guess, I’d say Troy is more likely than Chet. He’s made retaliatory moves toward others in the past. Admittedly, not this extreme. But he is really pissed that I seem to have stolen what he believes is his.” Hoyt’s arms tightened around me in emphasis. “I’m not going to let any of this scare me off. First, because that would let an asshole win, and that’s not gonna happen. And second, and much more important, because you matter to me. I meant what I said to him that night. I know a good thing when I see it, and I have no intention of giving you up. Not unless you want out.”

This was exactly what I’d wanted to hear and hadn’t dared let myself imagine. He still wanted this. He still wanted me.

My throat had gone thick with emotion, so I just shook my head. I didn’t want out. But I still worried about how our involvement could impact him. Cuddling closer, I pressed a hand to his chest, feeling the steady, reassuring thump of his heart.

“What if this isn’t the last time? What if this isn’t the last thing?”

“We’ll be on closer guard. The police are going to have Troy and Chet under a damned microscope, so I don’t think either of them will be able to pull off anything. As far as I’m concerned, we continue business as usual. Morning coffee cuddles and cooking dinners together and dating like normal people.”

“Just like that?”

“Just exactly like that.”

Beneath my palm, his pulse didn’t change. He truly was that laid back and relaxed about all of this. I realized a big part of what I found appealing about Hoyt was how solid and unshakeable he truly was.

One big, broad palm stroked my arm. “In the name of doing all that dating like normal people, I want you to come to dinner at my parents’ place. Meet everybody properly.”

The entire idea of facing down the rest of the McNamara clan absolutely terrified me. “I don’t know about that. It seems like kind of a big deal.”

“You’re a big deal.”

Well, didn’t that make my heart go all fluttery? “Hoyt, meeting the parents is a serious thing.”

“I’m serious about you.”

Flummoxed, I could only stare at him. “But isn’t this kind of fast?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know that there’s a specific timetable on such things. Do I need to slow down? Give you a chance to catch up?”

That was the thing that scared me most. I didn’t need time to catch up because I was right there with him. “No.”

“Then come to dinner.”

It was the last thing I wanted to do. I didn’t expect the meeting to go well. His parents couldn’t be thrilled with the idea of him being with me. But he’d done so much for me. Going to this dinner and meeting his family seemed like the least I could do.


“We’ll get it scheduled for our next mutual night off. Now—” He tightened his hold, cuddling me closer. “Give me some sugar to sweeten up this last crappy day.”

Settled at last, I framed his face between my palms and pressed my lips to his. We both sighed into the kiss, melting into each other as we took comfort in this little piece of intimacy.

“Hey, Caroline, what do we have for breakfast? Rios is—Oh!” Gabi’s voice cut off on a delighted little laugh. “Sorry about that. We’ll get breakfast ourselves. Carry on.”

As her footsteps retreated, we broke apart with mutual frustrated groans.

Hoyt pressed his face against my throat. “Maybe we should relocate inside. You could come and have a nap with me. I was up most of the night, and I’m beat.”

A nap sounded good. Being wrapped up in his arms sounded even better. Dangerous, maybe. But I’d been thinking about crossing that line with him almost from the beginning. I wanted him. He wanted me. That was easy math.

I debated with myself as he led me into his room and over to the actual bed with a grown-up mattress and tugged me down onto it. When he hauled me into him as little spoon, wrapping me up tight, I decided now wasn’t the right moment. I wasn’t quite ready for anything more than this.

But as I slid toward sleep with the soft warmth of his breath stirring against my nape, I knew it had to be soon.