Smoke on the Water Episode 2

Chapter 2: Caroline

He knows my name?

For a moment, I couldn’t speak, as my inner teenage girl had heart palpitations. Lord knew she’d had hours—years, even—crushing on Hoyt McNamara.

Damn, but he’d grown up fine. And he’d been the handsomest boy I’d ever seen, even before he left. Those five years looked good on him, as did the extra width on his shoulders and thick muscles in his arms built from the labor of his job.

I’d known he was back on-island. In a community the size of ours, it was hard not to be aware of all the comings and goings, especially of one of the island’s favorite sons. But I hadn’t actually seen him since he returned to join the newly expanded fire department. Why would I? We’d never been friends. We’d never been anything. He’d just been the completely untouchable older boy who, so far as I’d known, hadn’t even been aware I existed.

And yet he knows my name.

Shaking off the shock, I pasted on what I hoped was a proper professional smile instead of the lovesick puppy look I’d seen so frequently in the mirror back in high school. “Right. What can I get y’all?”

“Just a couple of beers. Thanks, Caroline,” Drew said.

Drew. Right. Who’d been in the class below me and actually knew who I was. Mystery solved. They’d probably been talking about me, the same as everyone else in Sutter’s Ferry. The idea of it chilled all those adolescent butterflies.

“Tap or bottle?”

They each made their requests, and I wove my way toward the bar, checking in on the rest of the tables in my section. A hefty portion of them were tourists. I always preferred the tourists. They had no idea who I was or who I was connected to. Which meant I didn’t have to wonder what they thought when they looked at me, and I usually didn’t have to worry they’d stiff me on tips. Those tips were the key that would grant me freedom, so I was motivated to earn as many as I could.

Bree caught me at the taps. “Well, well. Looks like Hoyt only got better looking with age.”

I rolled my eyes, not bothering to dignify the remark with a response.

She leaned against the bar, a tray tucked under her arm as she watched the McNamara brothers across the room with sharp gray eyes. “What is it about firefighters that’s so sexy?”

“Their willingness to risk life and limb to save other people. And the uniform.” All true, though, that had never been the attraction of Hoyt for me.

“You should totally do something about that.”

I waited for the foam to settle, then topped off each glass. “About what?”

“Locking down the new firefighter.”

“I’m not interested in locking down anyone.”

“Casual’s good, too,” Bree mused. “What’s good for the gander and all that.”

“I don’t have time to date.”

She laughed. “Who’s talking about dating? I’m talking about having some fun. Fun would do you some good.”

Fun? I didn’t have time for that either. My one goal was to save enough money to move out of my father’s house. My baby sister, Gabi, had finally graduated high school and would be leaving in the fall on a full-ride scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill. With her safely away, my brother and I would be free in a way we’d never been before because we’d both stuck in order to protect her. I was so damned close to being able to afford something of my own. Maybe not a lot of something, but anything was better than staying in the same house as him. Once I was safely out from under our father’s thumb, maybe I’d be able to convince Rios to actually leave the island. His life here had been thoroughly ruined by a crime he hadn’t committed. There was nothing left for him on Hatterwick. But I suspected he wouldn’t budge unless I did, and I wasn’t ready to leave the island, despite our father. This was home.

“Speaking of fun, when is Ford getting home?”

Ford Donoghue was a sure-fire means of changing the subject. While he was one of Rios’s best friends, Bree and Ford had been practically joined at the hip since elementary school. She’d always been one of the guys. A position she’d never seemed to mind. But since I’d gotten to know her better the past few years working the bar, I’d started to wonder if there was something more there than friendship. She’d taken his leaving for college hard and the news of his college girlfriend even harder.

“His moms were in for lunch earlier. He’s hooking up with Jace in Hilton Head. Then they’re both coming home next week sometime.”

Jace Hollingsworth was another of my brother’s best friends, much to the disappointment of his parents. I suspected his dad especially hated how close Jace was to all the Wayward Sons—the nickname Rios and his friends had given themselves years before. As the son of a well-respected environmental attorney, the elder Hollingsworths tolerated Ford. But Rios, the son of a boat mechanic, and Sawyer Malone, progeny of a fisherman who spent more time in the bottle than on the water, definitely didn’t pass muster. I loved Jace for thumbing his nose at his parents’ snobbery and maintaining those bonds of forged brotherhood. That would be easier to do now. His parents had moved off-island a couple years ago, after Gwen Busby’s disappearance and his sister Willa’s near drowning. Other than Jace, I didn’t think any of them had been back since then.

I loaded the drinks onto a tray. “Do the boys have big plans for the reunion?”

“I’m sure they do.” The trace of resentment lacing her tone suggested she expected them to ditch her.

I hoped they didn’t. But I also knew the four of them had something together that didn’t include Bree.

“Order up for seventeen and nine!”

Pivoting toward the pass-thru, I added the plates of food to my tray and headed back into the fray to deliver them. The crowd was getting thicker as more people came in from the beaches and whatever afternoon activities they’d pursued. I dropped off the orders and paused to take a few more before I made it back to the McNamara’s table.

“Sorry for the delay.”

Hoyt flashed a smile that had two deep dimples winking in his darkly stubbled cheeks. I ignored the way my stomach shimmied at those dimples. “It’s no problem. Looks like it’s jumping in here.”

I cast a quick glance back at the restaurant, noting we were down to only two empty tables. “Gonna get worse before the night is through. Is there anything else I can get you?”

Before either man could answer, a male voice from a nearby table filled a momentary drop in the din. “Two years later and still no justice for that missing girl… almost like someone got away with murder here.”

I recognized that snide voice. Chet Banks. Holding myself very still, I fought to keep my smile in place as the conversation continued.

“If it was up to me, that whole family would be run right off the island after what the boy did.”

If I’d had any doubt that the McNamaras could hear, it was put to rest as I saw temper flare in Hoyt’s green eyes.

“Supposedly, the cops didn’t have quite enough to charge the brother. Tragic that no other evidence turned up.” Marcus Hoffman. He wasn’t usually a problem unless Chet was around to play ringleader.

“I catch even a whiff of that girl’s bones washing up, and there’ll be hell to pay.”

Mortified and furious, I struggled to maintain my calm. They’d meant for me to hear. This was all intended to get a rise out of me. But I’d learned a long time ago that I should never respond. Responding just gave them more fuel.

But before I’d gathered my wits enough to repeat my question about whether the guys needed anything else, Hoyt was out of his seat, striding over to the table of assholes.

“You’re out of line.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s innocent until proven guilty where I come from. And, last I checked, guilt by association isn’t a thing in this country. No one should be harassed for the accused crimes of family members when there’s no proof or charges against them personally. Oh, that’s right. There hasn’t been proof or charges against her brother, either. It’s unjust and unethical to spread blame without cause.”

Chet huffed. “Unjust and unethical. Listen to this shit. Tell that to the dead girl’s parents and see if they think it’s unfair.”

Hoyt didn’t move, but I saw the stiffening of his posture and the twitch of the fingers that clearly wanted to curl into fists. I knew the signs, and I didn’t know what to do with it. Apparently, his brother recognized it too, because suddenly Drew was there, too, forming a human wall between me and the other two men.

Hoyt’s voice was quiet and level. “I’m sorry as can be for the Busbys’ loss. But blaming innocent people for whatever happened to Gwen isn’t gonna bring her back. Stop stirring the pot, Banks.”

“Whatever. We can think what we want. Ain’t no law against opinions.”

“Then keep to sharing your fucking opinions in private.”

“Or what?” At the combative tone, the restaurant fell almost silent.

“Or you’ll have me to deal with.”


Ed Cartwright emerged from behind the bar looking like an extra from Jaws with his wiry gray beard and piercing blue eyes. “Banks, Hoffman, you’re cut off for the day.”

Chet puffed up. “We didn’t do anything.”

“You’re being a dick, per usual. Out. Unless you want your drinking privileges permanently revoked.”

With fulminating glares, Chet and Marcus rose from their chairs, draining their beers and stalking out. Not until they’d disappeared to the parking lot did I register I was shaking, my fingers clutching the order pad so tight, they’d gone white at the knuckles. Releasing a long, slow breath, I willed them to relax.

“You okay?”

I lifted my gaze to Hoyt, who’d stepped in front of me, effectively shielding me from the view of curious onlookers with his bigger bulk. All the temper was banked now, replaced with concern. He’d defended me. Defended my family. No one on Hatterwick did that. Well, not other than Rios’s friends. Hardly anyone else dared go against the court of public opinion. But here was this man—my high school crush—doing exactly that after not seeing me for half a decade.

I had no idea what to do with that.

“Thank you. You just made a couple of enemies there.”

Hoyt’s shoulders twitched. “Couldn’t call them anything else to begin with.” His gaze continued to search my face, looking for… what?

Ed joined us. “Drinks on the house for you two. Caroline, take a minute.”

“I don’t need one—”

My boss fixed me with a steely glare. “Take a damned minute.” He gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze, completely at odds with his hard tone. “Please.”

With one last glance at Hoyt, I wove my way through the tables and disappeared through the swinging door into the kitchen, away from prying eyes. Inside, I dropped onto a stool in the corner.

Bree brought me a Coke. “Here. It’ll help with the shakes.”

I wrapped both hands around the glass lest I drop it.

“Looks like Hoyt’s in the right profession.”


“Hero through and through. You should totally rethink your no dating policy.”

I didn’t answer, and she left me twisting in the whirl of my own thoughts.

Why had Hoyt done that? Just because it was the right thing to do? That was the kind of guy he’d been in high school, so I guessed he hadn’t changed that much. But… why me? Why defend me? Did it mean something? Maybe I just wanted it to mean something because it had been so long since anyone outside my small circle had seemed to give a damn.

When I’d pulled myself together enough to go back to the floor, the McNamara brothers were gone, but I found an absurdly large tip left on the table. I pocketed the money and stared out toward the parking lot.

If I wasn’t careful, that high school crush was going to turn into a brand-new grown-up version, one I suspected would be a whole lot bigger.