Smoke on the Water Episode 24

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 24: Caroline

I eyed the stairs up to the house, gauging whether I’d be able to make it up them. Everything hurt, all the way down to my hair. My body letting me know in no uncertain terms that I’d overdone it this afternoon. But the tavern had been cleared for cleanup, and I’d leapt to help Ed and Bree start the process. We’d still been picking through the rubble, searching for anything salvageable, when the huge construction dumpster had been delivered. Along with it came more helping hands. Neighbors. Friends. Other island business owners. Hatterwick was coming together to help one of its own.

Ed had taken this blessing in stride, maintaining his stoic demeanor. But when the remains of Marv, his taxidermied marlin, had been discovered, he finally broke down. That damned fish had been his pride and joy. Seeing him standing amid the charred remains of his business, tears streaming down his weathered cheeks, my heart broke right along with his.

But we were going to build it back, and it was going to be better than ever. It had to be. Any other outcome meant that the bad guy won, even if he went to jail.

I had to think that was what would happen to David Foley. The police had hauled him in for questioning, and Hoyt had gone with Chief Thompson to observe. I hadn’t heard a word from him since, which said to me that Foley was still in custody and the questioning was ongoing. Tying up loose ends, I supposed. But his lighter had been found on the scene. Surely that meant he was responsible.

“Need a hand?”

I continued to eye the stairs, even as I waved Rios off. He’d picked me up from the tavern and brought me home when he’d gotten off work. “I’ll make it. No reason for you to get filthy, too.”

I was covered in soot and grime. The clothes I’d been wearing were probably ruined. But it had been worth it to take positive steps toward cleaning up, even though the actual rebuilding would be a long time out. I was desperate for a shower and food and about a gallon of water.

It was the lure of the latter that finally got me up the steps and into our apartment. Rios poured me a tall glass, so I didn’t actually touch anything. He even dragged out one of the wooden crates we were using for stools at the kitchen table.

Grateful, I sank down, feeling every ache of my muscles. “Thanks.”

He handed me a couple of painkillers. “Here. This will help.”

Dutifully, I tossed them back and guzzled down the water.

He refilled my glass, then took a seat beside me at the table. “Do you think it’s finally over?”

“God, I hope so. Hoyt’s still at the police station, so far as I know.” I could only imagine what had been happening with the investigation for the past few hours. No doubt the cops would have searched Foley’s rental looking for additional evidence. I knew from Rios’s experience that the police could hold Foley for quite a while without actual charges. But there’d been no direct evidence tying my brother to Gwen’s disappearance. That lighter might as well have been a smoking gun.

But I didn’t bring any of that up. I didn’t want to risk making Rios relive any of the shit he’d dealt with when he’d been taken in for questioning. “What will you do if it is over?” It was something that had been circling around in my brain since Hoyt had asked me what dream I’d been putting off.

“What do you mean?”

“Gabi will leave for college in a few weeks. We’re out of Dad’s house. You’re not bound here anymore. You don’t have to stay for me. You’ve got the chance to go somewhere else. Do something else. Start over.”

Rios hesitated, not quite meeting my eyes. “I was considering going into the military. Actually, we all are.”

I blinked in surprise. “Really?”

“Yeah. Sawyer has nothing left here now that his dad’s gone. Jace doesn’t want to follow the path laid out for him by his parents. Ford… Well, he’s looking for a different direction. And you’re right. I want a chance to start over.” He brought his gaze to mine. “I feel more okay about the idea of taking that chance now that you have Hoyt.” His lips curved a little. “I like him for you.”

I smiled back. “I like him for me, too.”

Knowing what a big deal this was for him to even consider, I laid a hand on his arm. “I am fully in support of you getting to have your own life. If this is your path, you should take it.”

His shoulders jerked in a shrug. “Well, we’ll see. There’s still time.”

His phone vibrated with a text. He glanced at the screen. “Gabi’s done with work. Apparently, Lisa got a flat and can’t bring her home. They need a rescue. Do you want to come with?”

“I really, really want to shower. And you don’t want to put this back in your truck.” I waved a hand to encompass my general filth.

“I don’t like leaving you here by yourself.”

“The most likely suspect is already in custody. I’ll lock up. It’ll be fine. You won’t be gone that long. And when you two get back, we can spring for pizza for dinner.” It was a rare treat, but I thought we’d all earned it.

“That is definitely a plan.” He rose. “Lock up behind me.”

I followed him to the door and did exactly that. Once he heard the lock snap into place, he saluted and trotted back around to the front of the house. As his truck pulled out of the drive, I grabbed a trash bag and made my way upstairs and into the bathroom. In truth, I was relieved to have a little time completely alone. There’d been someone around all the time for most of the summer. A safety precaution organized by my brother and Hoyt, I knew. A sensible one, at that. But the quiet, empty house was rather lovely.

Stripping off my grimy clothes, I put them straight into the trash bag. I would attempt to wash them, but I didn’t have a lot of hope. Maybe Hoyt would have some laundry secrets to getting soot out of fabric. The shower was hot, and as I didn’t have to worry about conserving water for anyone else just now, I lingered, scrubbing all the black from my skin and out of my hair. When I was through and the last of the gross circled down the drain, I decided to really indulge and run a bath. I’d have a bit of a soak. That would surely help my sore muscles. Plus, it would be easier to shave. My mood had picked up considerably, and I wanted to celebrate the probable end to all the insanity when Hoyt finally came home. So I’d take the time to scrub and buff and moisturize, doing everything possible to make myself utterly touchable. He’d enjoy exploring every inch with his hands, and I’d enjoy the consequences of that. Win-win for us both.

I was just finishing up with my legs when my phone vibrated with a text. I checked the screen.

Rios: This is gonna take a bit longer than planned. You may not want to wait dinner.

That was fine. I was still enjoying my alone time.

Feeling a little playful, I took a careful shot of my bare feet propped up on the edge of the tub and texted it to Hoyt.

Even as the message sent, I heard a noise from downstairs. Obviously, Rios wasn’t home with Gabi yet. The only other person who had a key was Hoyt himself. Grinning to myself, I tapped out another text.

I can hear you downstairs. Rios is out helping Gabi and a friend with a flat. Why don’t you come up and join me?

Then I tossed the phone aside. I wished I’d thought to start some music, maybe pull out some candles. Or maybe not. I wasn’t sure I’d be okay with open flames any time soon. But we didn’t need all the trappings to enjoy each other.

On a sigh, I settled back into the water, relaxing against the back of the tub.

Footsteps sounded on the stairs. Slow, a little heavy. Sounded like he was tired. It had been a long day for him, too. Maybe I’d talk him into stripping down and letting me pamper him for a change.

The door swung open slowly.

“I’ve been waiting for you.”

When Hoyt didn’t immediately respond, I cracked open my eyes and glanced toward the door. In the shadows, I could only see the hulk of broad shoulders, but something about his posture seemed… off somehow.

Concern cut through the playful as I sat up. “Baby, what’s wrong?”

The figure just outside the doorway stepped into the room.

Not Hoyt. Not safety. It wasn’t over yet, and I was utterly screwed.

The man in the doorway smiled because he knew it, too.

I screamed, though there was no one else around to hear.