Smoke on the Water Episode 15

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 15: Hoyt

“You ready?”

For just a moment, Caroline squeezed her eyes shut, her face a resolute mask. It was a stark contrast to the rest of her. The front half of her hair was pulled back from her face to reveal little silver hoops in her ears. She’d chosen a blue dress, but this one was more sedate than the sundress she’d worn for our first date, with a flowy skirt that hit past her knees, short little sleeves that just cupped her shoulders, and a straight neckline. Her open-toed sandals revealed a pretty shell-pink polish on her toes. I could see she’d added the same to her fingers.

“You look beautiful. But why do I feel you dressed like we’re going to a church picnic?”

Insult whipped a little color into her cheeks. “I’m meeting your parents. I want to make a good impression.”

I stepped in to skim my hands down her arms. “And you will. Relax, it’s just dinner.”

“‘Just dinner,’ he says.” She picked up her purse and a small paper gift bag, and muttered something in Spanish that, judging by her tone, probably wasn’t complimentary. “Let’s go.”

I laced my fingers with hers and lifted her hand so I could press a kiss to the back of it. “It’ll be fine. They’re going to love you.”

“I really hope your faith isn’t misplaced.”

Did she mean my faith in her or my family? Either way, I was vaguely insulted. But as she was one step away from crawling out of her skin with nerves, I let it go. It had taken nearly a week and a half to coordinate schedules, and in all that time, Caroline had built this whole dinner up into some monumental thing. On top of which, I knew a lot of people had treated her and her family poorly. At this point, nothing but getting it over with was going to put her at ease.

We headed out to the loaner car I’d been using since the fire. Though the case was straightforward, it would still be a few weeks before insurance approved my claim and sent a check to cover the loss of my truck. In the meantime, Stan Jenkins, one of my dad’s fishing buddies, had offered his antique 1980s Chevy pickup. It was a project vehicle Stan had been talking about restoring since I was old enough to peer into an engine compartment, and in all that time, he hadn’t gotten much further than replacing the motor. But it was getting me from place to place, so I was hardly going to complain.

As I drove the short distance toward my parents’ place in Sutter’s Ferry, Caroline gripped the sea turtle pendant on her necklace like a lifeline, dragging it back and forth on the chain. Reaching across the bench seat, I found her hand with mine and linked our fingers again. She didn’t look at me, but she held on tight, as if she’d be swept out to sea at any moment.

Her grip didn’t relax as we pulled into the driveway of the house where I’d grown up. It was a quintessential coastal cottage, clad in weathered shingles that had taken on a soft, silvery-gray patina, and a cedar shake roof my mother loved for its rustic charm and my father cursed for being a pain in the ass. I had to side with Mom on that one. White trim around the windows offered a crisp, clean contrast, and the bright blue front door added a splash of color and whimsy that reminded me of Caroline and her kitchen cabinets.

I tugged her up the steps to the porch, past the rocking chairs and hanging planters with their profusion of red petunias, and went straight inside. “Hey! We’re here!”

Mom popped out of the kitchen, her silver-streaked blonde hair tossed up in a ponytail, a checkered dish towel tossed over one shoulder. “Welcome!”

Beaming, she hurried across the room and embraced me like it had been a year instead of three days since she’d laid eyes on me. Then she turned to Caroline. “It is so nice to officially meet you, Caroline. I’m Ibbie.” She waved a hand toward the open back door, where Dad was stepping inside. “And that’s my husband, Frank.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. McNamara. Mr. McNamara.”

Mom waved that away. “Oh, now. Mrs. McNamara is my mother-in-law. Please, call me Ibbie.”

Caroline shot me a look of vague panic before squaring her shoulders and offering the bag. “I brought you a little hostess gift.”

“Ooo, presents. I love presents.” Mom took the bag and dipped a hand inside. It was a pint jar of something golden.

“It’s local honey from Golden Dunes Honey Company. And I added in a dozen or so of my favorite recipes, in case you needed ideas for how to use it.”

As Mom reached back into the bag again, Dad offered a none-too-subtle thumbs up.

Mom drew out a neat stack of index cards tied with purple ribbon. “Oh, how thoughtful! I love it. Thank you.” She wrapped an arm around Caroline’s shoulders in a friendly squeeze that stunned Caroline so much, for a moment I thought she might cry.

Shit. I hated she wasn’t used to casual affection or people being nice to her.

Before I could decide if and how I could rescue her, a timer went off. Dad waved a spatula. “That’ll be the chicken. Y’all have good timing.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Caroline asked.

“Everybody come grab a platter,” Mom ordered. “Drew! Come make yourself useful, son!”

My brother materialized from somewhere, and we all headed for the kitchen, grabbing plates and bowls of food and hauling them out back.

Caroline stopped on a gasp two steps out the door. “Oh! This is wonderful.”

Dad grinned from ear-to-ear. “It is, isn’t it? Our own little slice of paradise.”

Inside the fenced yard, my parents had planted an oasis of a garden that they’d nurtured over nearly three decades. It surrounded a wide patio that was shaded by one of the ancient live oaks that were sought after on the island. Beneath it, we’d built a long picnic table for the parties they liked to host. Tiki torches with citronella were already lit around the perimeter.

Mom brought up the rear and herded us all toward the table. Dad pulled the chicken off the grill, and we took our seats.

Drew dug out a big spoonful of potato salad. “So, what’s the word on the investigation?”

“Drew!” Dad hissed.

“What? I just want the update. Especially since everybody’s talking about those other fires.”

Because I could feel Caroline going ramrod straight beside me, I reached over to lay a hand on her leg beneath the table. “It’s still ongoing. They’ve narrowed it down to a couple of likely suspects, but conclusive evidence hasn’t been tied to either of them. As for the other fires, they aren’t believed to be connected to my truck.”

There’d been a few mailbox fires and some additional old sheds, all further afield than the original fires. Our perpetrator was getting bolder, probably enjoying seeing the department dance. But I sure as shit didn’t want to talk about work, even if I had been able to comment on an ongoing investigation.

“Shitty situation all around,” Drew continued. “Do they know what the motive is?”

Beneath my palm, her thigh began to tremble with tension.

“Well, it happens that I’ve pissed a few people off since I came home.” I kept my tone level as I attempted to glare my brother into submission.

“Son, hush. I need to say something.” Mom fixed a level gaze on Caroline. “The entire legal system of our country was founded on the idea that anyone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty. They haven’t proved your brother guilty of anything. So until or unless they do, as far as we’re concerned, he’s a victim of circumstance, and so are you. We do not in any way, shape, or form think you have anything to do with what’s happened.”

Mortified that she’d shone a spotlight on the elephant in the metaphorical room, I could only mutter, “Mom!”

“It’s better to clear the air. Now, hopefully, Caroline will be able to relax a little better.”

Beside me, Caroline took a careful sip of her tea. “I appreciate your perspective and that y’all are being so open-minded and welcoming me into your home.” She paused before shifting her gaze up toward the tree. “Have you ever considered adding an outdoor chandelier? Something with candles would really add to the ambiance you’ve got going out here.”

Then they were off talking about upcycling projects. My mom was in heaven. They both drew me into talking about the house and my plans for it. Mom still hadn’t been by to see the place by my own refusal, but as she and Caroline continued to make suggestions, I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold her off much longer. By the end of the meal, Mom had enough fodder for Dad’s Honey-Do list that he’d be busy until the end of the decade, and I had a whole new level of enthusiasm for the home improvement projects I’d largely put off to spend time with Caroline. Best of all, my girl was smiling, and that made me feel like I’d won the lottery.

Mom rose from the table. “Hoyt, come help me bring out dessert. I made banana pudding.”

“You are a goddess among women.”

“Of course I am.”

I followed her inside, prepared to have my hands laden with bowls.

She opened the fridge and pulled out the dish. “I really like her. The two of you seem great together.”

I smiled. “Yeah, we are.”

Mom patted my cheek. “You’re a good boy, Hoyt.”

When dessert was finished and the table cleared, Mom declared Drew was on dish duty and sent us on our way with neatly packaged leftovers and maternal hugs for us both. Caroline actually lingered a moment, squeezing back and thanking her for the invite.

“You’ll come back,” Mom announced.

“I will. Thanks.”

The tone of the ride back was vastly different. I could see the faint curve of her mouth as she rode, clutching our containers of leftovers in her lap.

“My family really liked you.”

She glanced over, smiling bigger. “I really liked them. It’s a novel concept to spend time with a family like yours. They’re really great. I hope you know that.”

“Yeah, I do.” And maybe that was something I hadn’t always actively thought about. But I was thinking about it now. “I try not to take it for granted.”

“That’s good. We never had anybody to take for granted. Our dad is… well, you’ve heard the rumors. And Mom. She left all of us with him without a backward glance so many years ago.”

The idea of it broke my heart for all of them. I couldn’t imagine a mother leaving her children with a known abuser. It was hard not to judge Caroline’s absentee mom for that.

Catching the tightening around Caroline’s mouth, I took her hand again and squeezed. “It’s her loss. You’re all great, despite your circumstances. And I feel pretty sure that the credit for your siblings goes to you.”

The tension in her expression eased. “Someone had to step up. Rios and I both did, in different ways. Right now, we’re just glad Gabi is getting the chance to do what we couldn’t. Go off to school, have a new start away from all the baggage here.”

“Did you want that? The whole college thing?”

“I never really considered it a possibility.”

Because she never would have left her siblings to fend for themselves. I had to admire the family loyalty among the three of them. They’d bonded together over their shared circumstances.

Caroline stared out the passenger side window at the open water. “I don’t think that route would have suited me. Not the way it will Gabi. She’s brilliant.”

“You’re no slouch.”

“No. But learning for the sake of learning’s sake never appealed to me. I think I’m way too practical for that.”

“The whole college thing didn’t suit me either. It was why I went straight into the fire academy after high school.” I glanced over at her again, gauging her mood. “Is there some other dream you’ve been denying yourself because of your duty to family? Something you’d really love to do?”

She stayed quiet for so long that I wondered if I’d crossed a line. “In a perfect world, I think I’d like to have a shop.”

“Yeah? What kind?”

“The kind where I take the discarded things I find and turn them into something beautiful or functional.”

There was probably a metaphor in there for her life, but I didn’t bring it up. “Upcycling for profit. I like it. Why not do it?”

“Starting a business requires money. And I don’t know if there’d be enough profit margin in something like that to justify even trying.”

“It’s worth doing some more research into.”

“Maybe,” she conceded. “Someday.”

Back at the house, we made our way up the steps, noting the lack of other vehicles. “Looks like nobody’s home. Do you want to come in?”

Did she honestly think I was going to say no? “Sure.”

We divested ourselves of the leftovers, and I pulled her into the living room, toward the monstrosity of a sofa they’d brought home from Beachcomber Bargains. It was a hideous brown corduroy, threadbare in places, but she’d insisted she could make a slipcover that would give it new life. She just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. What we had gotten around to was discovering that it was a damned comfy couch.

“I have a confession to make.”

Her brows went up. “Oh?”

“I’ve been thinking very indecent thoughts about this demure little dress of yours.”

I neatly tumbled us onto the sofa, so she splayed across me, her knees planting on either side of my hips. Because they were right there, I skimmed my hands up the backs of her thighs, toward her delectable ass. Caroline tipped forward, readily finding my mouth with hers, and I was lost in her, as I always was. Everything between us was heat and hands and need.

As she settled more firmly against the raging erection in my shorts and began to rock, my blood-starved brain tried to calculate which base we were at and whether it was time to round another.

Then the overhead light switched on.

“What are you doing?”

At the sound of Rios’ voice, Caroline froze. I surreptitiously removed my hands from beneath her dress.

Slowly, she sat up and glared at her brother. “We were celebrating that the Meet The Parents dinner went well.”

He made a huffing noise that sounded vaguely like an enraged bull. “Celebrate somewhere private.”

Then he turned and stalked off. A moment later, his bedroom door slammed.

Caroline wilted down to my chest, burying her face against my throat. “That was mortifying.”

“I thought you handled it admirably. And I’m still in possession of all my limbs, so I’m calling it a win.”

“Rios is protective, but not stupid. He’s not going to interfere with us unless he thinks I’m not on board.” She folded her arms and looked into my eyes. “He has a point, though.”



“Might I point out that I live right next door?”

“And your bedroom shares a wall with my sister.”

I manfully attempted to ignore how my dick jumped at the implication that we’d be doing anything in that bedroom that her sister didn’t need to hear. But I didn’t miss how Caroline’s eyes darkened.

“You’re absolutely right,” I rasped, gripping her hips. “I’ll see what I can do.”