Smoke on the Water Episode 16

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 16: Caroline

“I will never not love breakfast empanadas.” I bit into the tender, flaky pastry, closing my eyes as the savory, smoky flavor of chorizo and potatoes exploded on my tongue.

Across the table, Hoyt took an enormous bite of his second one and moaned appreciatively. That moan did things to me south of the border, and I restlessly crossed my legs.

“Do you know how to make them?”

“In theory, yes. But mine definitely don’t beat Marisol’s. She’s a goddess of pastry. I’m more a buy the dough in the freezer section and assemble kind of girl.”

“Valid. But maybe we could aspire to learn, because these are amazing.”

I loved how he said “we” and didn’t just assume that I’d figure it out because I was a woman. He was a man who liked to cook, and it had become our habit to share meals together on the days we could manage it with our schedules. Frequently, that meal was breakfast, and I adored getting to start my day with him. Even if I had been spending more and more time imagining starting that day with him in bed. His or mine. I wasn’t fussy. But our schedules—and my siblings—hadn’t made that possible.

Until today.

Hoyt and I had a rare full day off to spend together. As it was a weekday, Rios would be tied up with work, and Gabi was off with friends, thus leaving the house blessedly empty. Going out for a late breakfast hadn’t been my plan, but when Hoyt had suggested we stop by Panadería de la Isla, I wasn’t about to say no. Everything Marisol baked was amazing.

The sun was already high in the cloudless blue sky, and a lovely breeze carried the scent of the ocean past our patio table in front of the bakery. Tourists moved along the sidewalks, popping into shops or carrying coolers and umbrellas for a day at the beach. Sitting here with Hoyt, with no work on my schedule, it was almost possible to imagine what it was like to be one of them. Free to indulge in vacation pleasures. I’d never actually had a vacation. Leisure and I weren’t exactly on a first-name basis. I’d always been too busy picking up the slack to take care of my family. I wondered what it would be like to have that kind of unencumbered time. Could I actually relax enough to take advantage of true time off?


I glanced up from my coffee to see Connie Galloway, the owner of Beachcomber Bargains, standing just outside the perimeter of planters that marked the edge of the patio, her goldendoodle on a leash.

“Mrs. Galloway. Hello.”

“You’re just the woman I was looking for.”

I couldn’t imagine why. “Oh?”

“I just got in a shipment of three old trunks and immediately thought of you. They’d be amazing upcycled into storage for your new place.”

I blinked at the older woman, my brain already sparking with ideas. “That’s great to know. I’d love to take a look at them. Thank you so much for telling me.” The effort was thoughtful and unexpected. Then again, a fair chunk of all my recent paychecks and my savings had gone to her store since I’d moved out, so maybe not so unexpected.

“I’ll just set them aside until you have a chance to come by. Enjoy your day with your beau.” With a wink, Connie strode away, leaving me more than a little flummoxed at the easy interaction.

This wasn’t the first time this had happened. Over the past few weeks, since I’d started dating Hoyt, I’d have sworn things had gotten better around town. There’d been no further action from my dad. He’d apparently decided that pretending none of us existed was preferable to acknowledging that we were adults who could make our own decisions. That was absolutely fine with us. Troy had been on his best behavior since the fire, only popping into the tavern once and leaving a massive tip. Chet and Marcus hadn’t shown their faces, and no one else had said a word directly to me against me or either of my siblings. All had been quiet. Enough that my brother and the rest of his friends had somewhat backed off from the protective detail they didn’t think I knew they were pulling. The only dark spots were the sporadic, small nuisance fires still popping up around the island. At this point, Chief Thompson was convinced it was trouble teens, and Hoyt hadn’t wanted to talk about it when I’d asked.

Marisol came out with our check and an enormous wicker basket.

“What is all this?” I asked, eying the red-and-white checkered cloth inside.

“It’s a surprise.” Hoyt pulled some bills from his wallet and passed them over. “Thanks, Marisol.”

“Anytime. Y’all have fun.”

As she walked away, I went brows-up. “Have fun with what?”

He rose and snagged my hand, grabbing the basket with the other. “You’ll see, Miss Suspicious.”

Because I understood him well enough to know he wouldn’t say another word until he was good and ready, I held my tongue until we arrived at the marina a few minutes later. “Why do I get the feeling you’re being sneaky?”

“That is an inherent part of pulling off a surprise.”

He found a parking place for the borrowed truck and slid out of the driver’s seat. I waited as he circled around, because I knew he enjoyed having the chance to be a gentleman and help me down, and I’d take any excuse for him to touch me. Picnic basket in hand, Hoyt led me down a series of walkways to a slip at the far end, where a sailboat bobbed gently against its moorings. It wasn’t a large vessel compared to some of the yachts that made berth here, but it certainly beat the little Sunfish I’d been on a handful of times growing up. The hull was painted a classic white, accented by the varnished woodwork on the deck. There were enough nicks and scrapes to say that this boat had seen use and was still floating, but they gave it character rather than detracting from its overall beauty.

“What are we doing here?”

“Well, we’re going for a picnic sail.”

I stared at him. “Is this yours?”

“Officially, no. I’m leasing it for the day, but I’d love to get one. It’s a great little pocket cruiser, and this was the perfect chance to take her out for a spin to see how she handles.”

Now I understood why he’d told me to wear a swimsuit this morning.

“You ever been sailing before?”

“Not on anything like this.”

Hoyt stepped across from the dock, setting the basket down on the deck and offering his hand. When I hesitated, he smiled. “Don’t worry. I grew up sailing. I know what I’m doing.”

“I know. You were on the sailing team in high school.”

His smile broadened into a grin. “You remember that?”

“I remember lots of things about you from high school. I had a terrible crush on you when I was a freshman, so I paid attention.” Somehow, that was easier to admit now that we were together.

“Nice to know I wasn’t the only one looking.” He helped me on board and immediately stowed the basket that probably held our lunch. “Wind is good. Not too stiff, not too light. Great weather for a nice, easy sail.”

And it was. With expert efficiency, he took us out of the marina, into Pamlico Sound, around the south side of the island toward the open water. I helped where I could, doing what he told me, but for the most part, I simply got to enjoy the glorious sensation of freedom that came with being out on the ocean, carried along by the breeze. It was like flying. I watched Hoyt at the helm, the wind whipping his brown hair, his teeth flashing white against a tanned face. God, he was gorgeous. And miraculously, he was mine. Maybe it was time to take that to the next level.

After an hour or so, he navigated closer to the north end of Hatterwick, on the Atlantic side. High on one of the few cliffs of the island was a big, imposing house set well away from everything and everyone else. The Sutter House, where Jace and Willa Hollingsworth’s grandparents still lived. That house had stood defiant in the face of decades of Atlantic storms. What must it be like to live out here, away from everyone else on the island?

Movement on the beach caught my attention, and I gasped. “Look!”

A trio of horses plodded along the water’s edge. One was clearly a baby. It dipped its nose toward the sand, then danced back as the waves lapped its hooves.

“Been a long time since I’ve seen any of the ponies out here,” Hoyt murmured.

Like Ocracoke, Corolla, and Shackleford Banks to the north, Hatterwick had its own band of wild horses thought to be descended from wild Spanish mustangs. They mostly stuck to the hillier part of the island, which belonged predominantly to the Sutter family. I didn’t know how many there were. Maybe a couple dozen? At one time, there’d been more, but their habitat had shrunk as the population of the island grew.

I leaned into the curve of Hoyt’s arm. “They’re so beautiful.”

We watched the little trio until they disappeared over the dunes. Then Hoyt straightened and stripped off his T-shirt.

“What are you doing?”

“I thought we could go for a swim.”

I glanced back at the shoreline. “Have to be extra careful here. This is where Willa Hollingsworth nearly drowned a couple of years ago.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess I’d forgotten about that since I wasn’t here at the time. What happened?”

I pulled off my own T-shirt, reveling in the warmth of the sun on my bare skin. “Willa’s a big animal lover. She thought she saw a dog in the water and swam out to rescue it. She got caught in a riptide.”

“Thought she saw?”

I shimmied out of my shorts, leaving only the swimsuit I’d put on this morning. “Well, it was night, and nobody actually saw the dog. So either it didn’t make it, or she was mistaken. Either way, her parents didn’t take it well. It was the same night Gwen Busby disappeared. That was what prompted them to move off island and take her with them. Anyway, Sawyer is the one who saved her. His quick thinking is the only reason she survived.”

“Shit. That’s gotta leave some trauma.”

I thought of the watchful quiet and reserve I’d seen in Willa since she’d come to work at the tavern. She did the job, but I could tell being around all the people was hard on her. “I’m sure it does.”

We drifted a little further down the coast, to the next little inlet, and Hoyt dropped anchor.

“Shall we?” He offered his hand again.

I took it, and we leapt, hitting the water at the same time. That first stunning grip of cold stole the breath from my lungs. We hadn’t quite hit high summer, so the water hadn’t warmed to my preferred swimming temperatures on the ocean side of the island. Kicking hard, I broke the surface and sucked in air.

“Jesus, it’s freezing!”

Hoyt grinned. “Give it a minute. You’ll adapt.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “A gentleman would offer to share body heat in the meantime.”

“I’m nothing if not that.” He reached out and snagged me, pulling me against his body.

On a sigh, I wrapped my arms and legs around him, which had the delightful side effect of settling my center against the bulge behind his board shorts. A bulge that got considerably more prominent as the motion of him treading water to keep us both afloat rubbed us together.

God, that felt good.

The low rumble in his chest told me he felt the same.


“Yeah?” His voice was a little strained.

“Does this boat have a cabin?”

Those green eyes sparked. “It does.”

“I think maybe we should go check that out instead of swimming.”

“You’re right. It’ll definitely be… warmer below decks.”

“Mmm.” I gave him a quick, nipping kiss and let go, swimming back to the boat.

We clambered aboard and stumbled toward the cabin. I hadn’t been inside since we boarded back at the marina, and I stopped short at the multiple little jars of flowers he’d set up in the cup holders around the space. Which meant he’d had time to plan this little outing beyond just making arrangements to rent the boat.

His hands came to my hips from behind, and he pressed a kiss to my shoulder. “Too cheesy? I wasn’t counting on this, but I was hoping.”

Overcome that he’d tried to add a little romance and sweetness, I turned in his arms. “It’s perfect.”

His lips brushed mine in a whisper of a kiss. “You’re perfect.”

“Mmm.” Stepping away, I backed toward the double berth at the bow, reaching back to untie the straps of my bikini top. Nerves made my hands shake as the last knot pulled free, and I let the fabric fall to the floor.

Hoyt swallowed and swore reverently.

“Just so we’re clear—because I know you pride yourself on being a gentleman—I want you to touch me.”

“Thank God.”

He closed the space between us, and then those work-roughened hands I’d dreamed about were on me, massaging my breasts, his thumbs circling my nipples until they were taut peaks. My breath hissed out.

“So damned pretty.” He bent, closing his mouth around one nipple, and I wobbled as my knees went weak.

He took advantage, tipping me backward until we tumbled onto the berth and he ranged over me, greedily suckling as he explored the rest of me with his wonderful hands. I moved restlessly beneath him as every touch and stroke lit little fires along my skin, winding me tighter and tighter. When he finally moved lower, hooking his fingers in the edges of my bikini bottoms and dragging them down, all I could think was, Yes.

Then he spread my thighs, settling his broad shoulders between them and dipping his head to taste my most intimate flesh.

“Oh, God!”

There was no room for anxiety, no room for self-consciousness, no room to remember that no one else had ever done this. There was only the unspeakable pleasure as he worked me with his mouth and tongue. Sensation built to an unbearable edge. My fingers clenched in his hair, and I didn’t know if I was trying to pull him away or keep him close. Then he slid a finger into the center of the ache, and I detonated.

Hoyt eased me back down from the cliff. By the time the strongest of the shuddering aftershocks had passed, he’d crawled up beside me, one broad hand resting low on my belly as he stared down with a mix of wonder and satisfaction.

“I see now why we needed privacy. Need some water for your throat?”

I kind of wished for a bucket of water over my head to cool my flaming cheeks. “I… it’s been a long time. And I’ve never done… er… that.”

His eyes sparked. “Bonus for me.”

Summoning muscle control from somewhere, I rolled toward him, nipping his bottom lip. “My turn.”

It took longer than I wanted to wrestle off his board shorts, mostly because my coordination was still sapped. But his amusement at that fact quickly faded when I had him in my hand. He was beautifully made, his body built for action because of his job. I stroked my thumb along the underside of his cock, enjoying how he jumped in my hand. Hoyt flailed a bit, finally coming up with a condom he’d stowed somewhere. As he rolled it on, some of my nerves came back.

I’d only done this with one other person, and not since high school. I hadn’t trusted anyone enough.

At my hesitation, Hoyt lifted his gaze to me, concern all over his face. “You okay? We don’t have to—”

“No. No, I’m fine. Don’t stop.” I wanted this. I wanted him.

He pulled me over the top of him. “You’re in control.”

That he’d give me this gift, understand that I’d need it, meant so much to me. I took his mouth again, sinking into the taste of sea and salt and him as our bodies heated together. Reaching between us, I notched him at my entrance and slowly sank down, using the rock of the boat to ease him deeper and deeper inside me. I was so incredibly full in the best possible way.

Hoyt’s hands gripped my thighs, and the muscles of his abs shuddered. I could feel what it cost him to hold still while my body adjusted to the girth of his. Always putting me first, this man. In a life full of so many challenges, so many disadvantages, how had I gotten so lucky?

Framing his face in my hands, I couldn’t quite stop the glimmer of tears. “I’m so glad it’s you.”

His eyes fixed on my face, and I knew the instant he registered the tears. Because I didn’t want to ruin this beautiful moment, I kissed him, pouring out all the emotion brimming inside me as I began to move in a slow rise and fall, chasing our pleasure. One hand tangled in my hair, the other arm wrapping around my waist to hold me close so he could rock deeper into me with every thrust. Every nerve lit with delicious sensation. Absolutely nothing had ever felt as good as having him inside me. Each kiss grew more fevered, each touch more frantic. The wave of heat built between us until it ate through the last of our control and sent us up in flames.

Some time later, I wilted over his chest. We were both damp. From our brief swim or our own exertions, I didn’t know. I just knew I didn’t want to move from this spot, skin to skin and wonderfully sated. Maybe after I got my breath back in a century or so.

Hoyt stroked a hand down my spine and rasped, “Well, that seals it.”

“Seals what?” I managed.

“Now I absolutely have to buy the boat.”