Smoke on the Water Episode 21

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 21: Hoyt

I stared after Caroline, feeling like I’d just been kicked in the gut. Somehow that hurt worse than the burns, worse than my raw throat and gritty eyes. It didn’t take a genius to see she was pulling away. That she’d taken everything Carson had said to heart and was blaming herself for all of this. And I didn’t know how to make it better for her. I didn’t know how to stop her from blowing us up in some deluded attempt to protect me.

Fucking Carson.

I’d never had reason to like the man, but I’d never truly despised him before. I did now. If he cost me Caroline…

“Lock it down,” Rios murmured.

I glanced up at the younger man, seeing the same rage simmering in his eyes. Something passed between us. An understanding we hadn’t had before. Sucking in a breath, I nodded.

Somehow I made it through shoveling in the breakfast Mom and Gabi made us, though I didn’t taste a thing. I let Mom fuss long enough to reassure herself I was really okay, then I claimed exhaustion—not a lie—and sent my family home to get their own rest.

The moment they were out of the house, Gabi seemed to deflate. “I’m going up for a nap, too.” She crossed over to me and slid in for a careful side hug. “Thank you for saving my sister.”

I’d never had a sister, but I found hugging her back wasn’t awkward. “Anytime.”

Her smile was a little wobbly around the edges. “You’re one of the good ones, Hoyt.”

“Thanks?” What else could I say to that?

She moved around the room, hugging Ford and Sawyer, in turn, before moving to her brother. Rios gave her a tight squeeze and sent her off with a murmur of something in Spanish that I didn’t understand, but held clear affection. None of us spoke as she trudged slowly upstairs. I considered making my own exit, but I understood Rios had things to say to me. Maybe I did to him, too. And I knew his friends were here to discuss next steps.

“You really care about her.” Rios’s soft voice wasn’t full of surprise or question. He said it as a calm statement of fact.

No pulling punches or pussy footing around it, then. That was fine. I didn’t have the energy for anything but straight shooting.

I turned to face him. “I’m in love with her.” No sense in hiding it. My actions last night had spelled it out clearly enough.

His steady gaze showed no surprise. “Have you told her?”

A million times in my head. “No. I’m not sure that would help the situation right now. She thinks she’s bad for me, all because of that fucking son of a bitch, Carson.”

The smile Rios flashed was bitter. “He’s certainly not winning any popularity contests with me.”

Too tired to keep standing, I dropped into one of the camp chairs. “Why does he hate your family so much?”

Ford leaned against the wall. “That’s the million dollar question.”

“One I don’t have the answer to,” Rios continued. “I don’t know if my dad did something to him or if he’s just a racist son of a bitch who sees a brown man as a convenient scapegoat.”

“Fucker. Nobody with that kind of prejudice should be in any kind of position of power.”

“You’re not wrong. We’re not going to fix a broken system. But I do have some insight into my sister.”

“Lay it on me. I’ll take whatever advice I can get.”

He leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his knees. “She’s somebody who takes everything on herself, and she’s gonna be taking this pretty hard. This was all shit she was worried about before she got involved with you, so it’s just pressing on existing fears. If she tries to push you away, don’t let her. Stand your ground. She’s stubborn. All of us are. If you really want to be with her long-term, then you’ve got to be patient enough to weather that.”

Waiting? Hell, it felt like I’d been waiting for Caroline Carrera my whole life. What was a while longer? Especially now, when I knew what it was to be with her? “I can do that. I can give her the time she needs and just be here on the other side when she’s ready.”

“Good. Now go to bed yourself. You look like you’re about to drop.”

He wasn’t wrong. I’d already been dragging from the adrenaline crash after the fire. Having a second round from my confrontation with the chief of police hadn’t helped.

“What about keeping tabs on the girls? I know we slacked off on that, but now…”

“We’ll take care of it,” Sawyer said.

And I had a moment to realize that Rios and his friends were a true unit. They operated together the same way I did with my fire crews. As a team. Or in their case, a family. They’d take care of their own.

Reassured by that, I hauled myself around to my side of the house and made my way upstairs. Though every step felt like moving through quicksand, I took the time to shower, washing away the remnants of smoke that still clung to my hair and skin. All my burns woke up and screamed at the lukewarm water. Gritting my teeth, I got through it, refreshing the burn cream and bandages before preparing to fall into bed.

But I couldn’t make myself do it. Not just yet. Stepping out on the balcony, I strode around to Caroline’s door. If she’d been just a tenant, this would cross a line. Probably. But she wasn’t just a tenant, and I couldn’t rest until I saw she was okay. Peering through the gap between the sheers she’d hung over the French door, I saw her curled up on the air mattress, her damp hair curling across the pillow. Her chest rose and fell in a slow, easy rhythm. Sleeping.

Reassured, I trudged back inside and collapsed onto my bed. Sleep took me under fast.

Gasping for breath, I stumbled through the thick, choking smoke, the searing heat of the flames wrapping me in a hellish embrace. “Caroline!”

The fire roared like a living beast, hungry and merciless. I stumbled on, the fear of not finding her a knife in my gut.

The dining room was fully involved, flames dancing with a terrifying frenzy up the walls, across the ceiling. Each step was a battle against the heat that threatened to consume me. My skin felt like it was melting, the bandana over my face useless against the smoke that clogged my lungs.

I pushed through to the kitchen, the door hot to the touch. The flames reached for me with greedy fingers, a wall of fire blocking my path. The heat was unbearable, a physical force that pushed me back.

The sound of Caroline’s voice was faint, a ghostly whisper over the crackling fire.

“Caroline, where are you?” I choked out.

Smoke blurred my vision, and my eyes streamed. I couldn’t see her. Couldn’t figure out where the screams were coming from. Everywhere I turned was more flame, and I realized that the fire had closed in, cutting off any exit.

I hadn’t found her, and now we were both going to die.


“Hoyt, wake up. I’m okay. I’m safe. Wake up.”

I rocketed out of sleep, already reaching toward Caroline’s voice. And there she was, kneeling beside me, one hand on my shoulder. My arms closed around her. Real. Alive.

“You’re okay. You’re okay.” I gasped it over and over, my voice ragged.

She wrapped around me. “You got me out. I’m fine.” The rasp of her abused throat was music. “You were having a nightmare.”

That pulled me the rest of the way out of the dream. Judging by the angle of the sun, it was much later in the day. Was it the same day? Or had I managed to sleep into tomorrow? Had she? We’d gone to bed separately. She’d shut me out.

Remembering that, I loosened my hold. “What are you doing here?”

“I woke up a bit ago. I was out on the balcony, and I heard you. You’d left your door unlocked, so I thought I ought to wake you up.”

“Thank you.” Remembering that she’d said she wanted to be alone, I reluctantly let her go. “I promised I’d give you space.”

She pulled back far enough to look at me. “Do you want space?”

“Hell no. I want you right here.” Where I could feel her, safe and whole.

“Okay, then.” She gently pushed me back into the pillows and stretched out beside me, snuggling close.

The knots in my chest loosened. I wasn’t sure if this meant she was done taking her distance, or if she was staying for my sake until I settled. Grateful for her presence either way, I brushed a kiss to her temple. “Were you able to sleep?”

“Some. You’re not the only one who’s having nightmares. I expect that’ll last for a while.”

“Probably. But we’re gonna be okay. We’re going to get to the bottom of all this.” I tightened my hold on her. “None of this was your fault.”

Her sigh tickled the side of my throat. “It feels like my fault.”

“The only person at fault for any of these fires is whoever struck the match. You’re not responsible for any of their behavior or motivations. That’s akin to victim blaming.”

“Fair point.” She lapsed into a weighty silence, and I wondered if I needed to press any harder.

When she spoke again, her voice was barely above a whisper. “I was all set to leave the island.”

Every muscle in my body tensed. “What?”

“That’s what I was lying in bed thinking about. How if I left, maybe all of this would stop, and innocent people would stop getting hurt.”

It took me a few moments to recognize that the frantic gallop of my heart was panic. “You don’t know that.”

“No, I don’t. And it occurred to me that if that happened, if it were true, that I’d be giving whoever this is exactly what they want. I’m not in the habit of giving in to bullies. But that wasn’t what changed my mind.”

She’d changed her mind. Did that mean she was staying? “What did?”

She propped herself up so she could look down into my face. Her fingers stroked feather soft along my cheek, the pads of her fingers catching against my stubble. “I’m selfish.”

“You’re one of the least selfish people I’ve ever met.”

Caroline huffed a humorless laugh and shook her head. “It turns out I can’t walk away from you.”

For a few moments, all I could feel was the tangle of relief and nerves and hope in my gut. “Why?”

Those big dark eyes stayed steady on mine. “Because I’m in love with you.”

I didn’t move, lest I find out I was dreaming again.

Her smile was rueful. “I think I was always a little bit in love with you. Or at least the idea of you.” That pointer finger traced my jaw. “The reality is so much more than I imagined. So much more than I ever thought that I could have. And I don’t want to give that up. If that makes me selfish, so be it.”

Her mouth came to mine, soft, soothing, and I threaded my fingers into her hair, hanging on. “If you’d left, I would’ve followed.”

She pulled back again, far enough to look down at me. “Why?”

“The same reason I violated every bit of my training and ran into a burning building with no gear to save you. Because I love you.”

I watched the wonder break in her face like the dawn, and I wanted to see that look every day for the rest of my life.

“Hoyt.” Her eyes were wet with unshed tears, but this time I knew they were happy ones. She deserved so many good things in her life, and I wanted to be the one to give them to her.

I drew her down again, taking her mouth in a long, drugging kiss that inevitably sparked into more. Her hands skimmed down my bare chest and lower, hesitating at the waistband of my sweatpants.

“Don’t stop.”

“You’re hurt.”

“Nowhere it matters.”

That was all the invitation she needed. She bent, trailing kisses down my torso as she scooted lower and lower, dragging off my sweatpants. It was a novel thing, having her strip me first, torturing me with her mouth and hands until I was one step above feral.

Surging up, I rolled, pinning her beneath me. “Need you.” I needed to feel her around me. Needed to remind us both that we’d survived.

She wrestled out of her cami top and the little shorts she’d slept in until she was bare to my hungry gaze and ravenous mouth. Then it was my turn to drive her up, up, up, until she was chanting my name, begging for more.

We had just enough mutual sanity left to remember the condom. She ripped the packet open, rolled it on. Then I plunged into her, burying myself inside that sweet, hot body over and over, drinking in every gasp, every moan, and demanding more, until we both flashed over the edge together.