Smoke on the Water Episode 28

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 28: Caroline

With gentle hands, Pete Novak finished applying a second butterfly bandage. “Well, there’s no question you have a concussion. But you don’t need stitches. All in all, you were pretty lucky.”


A lot of emotions were tangled inside me, underneath the weighted blanket of shock, but I wasn’t sure lucky was one of them. At the corner of the house, I spotted the police rolling a gurney and a black body bag around to where Hector still lay. Now that the fire was out, they were dealing with what came next.

I shivered, despite the humid summer night and the emergency blanket wrapped around me.

My father was dead, and I had no idea how to feel about that. It wasn’t real yet, even though I’d glimpsed a flash of his broken body as Hoyt had carried me out of the house. Hector would never lift a hand to me again. Never berate me for being something other than what he wanted. He could never hurt any of us physically again.

But emotionally? The aftershocks of finding out he’d murdered our mother were going to be ongoing for a good long while. He’d not only taken her from us, he’d taken her good memories as well, twisting what we believed with all his lies. My siblings were still reeling from that, and I regretted blurting it out the way that I had. But it wasn’t like there was a gentle way to share that kind of news and, in the moment, it had seemed vital that they not go on another moment believing the worst of her.

A few feet away, Hoyt was giving his statement to Chief Carson.

He looked terrible. His lip was split, and his face was a mass of swelling and bruises. I knew exactly how that felt, and I wished he’d let the EMTs check him out, too. But he’d insisted I had to come first, and he’d wanted to be as transparent as possible with the police, given his actions had resulted in Hector’s death.

He’d killed my abuser. Maybe not on purpose, but he’d done it. And I had no idea what kind of impact that would have on him. On us. If there even was still an us.

He strode over to me as Pete gave further discharge instructions for the rest of my injuries. “You should follow up at the clinic, but I don’t think there’s a need to go to the mainland.”

Small mercies. I’d take what I could get.

Hoyt took my hand. “Are you up to some questions?”

My head ached, but I knew this was a necessary part of closing this nightmare out, so I nodded.

Carson materialized beside us, looking less antagonistic than usual. “Tell me what happened.”

So, I took him through it, telling him everything that I knew. “He admitted he set the fires at both the beach house and the tavern, as well as Hoyt’s truck.”

Carson’s bushy brows drew together. “Why?”

“It was all about controlling me. He was trying to take away my ability to escape him, just like he did to our mother.”

His gaze sharpened. “Your mother?”

I was still processing all of this. “She didn’t run away like everyone thought. He killed her. She was making some kind of arrangements to get us all away from him, but he caught her and killed her rather than let her go. Then he dumped her body in the ocean.”

No one had ever even looked because everybody had been so convinced she’d run. I’d be feeling the guilt of that for a long time to come.

The police chief still looked skeptical. “He told you that?”

“He was planning to kill me. He’s always hated me because I look the most like her. That’s why I was the one who was the most targeted by the abuse that you did nothing about.”

His eyes dropped for just a moment, as if he was embarrassed by his own lack of action. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part.

“There’s no way to prove for sure what he said. It’s possible that he could have been making all of it up as another means of torturing me before he killed me himself. But it fits. It never made sense to me that our mother, who was well aware of his predilections and terrified of him, wouldn’t try to take us, too. That she’d never even try to contact us in all these years. The idea that she was selfish enough to do that was something that he planted after she was gone.”

And all along, she’d been a victim, too.

Shoving down the guilt and the grief, I took him through the rest of it.

“You were unconscious during the altercation between Hoyt and your father?”


“So you didn’t see exactly how Hector went over the railing?”

“No. But I’ve been on the receiving end of his fists myself. I have every faith that whatever actions Hoyt took were entirely self-defense.”

Carson was silent for a long moment. “That’s all I’ve got for now. My department will be in touch if it turns out we need anything else.”

As he strode away, one of the firefighters stepped up. “We’re done with the house. Fire’s out. That room’s a damned mess, both from the flames and our suppression measures. But structurally, it’s probably fine. The fire didn’t have time to eat into the beams and studs. Everything’s gonna smell like smoke and gasoline, and there’ll be a lot of cleanup needed, but it could have been a lot worse.”

Hoyt stepped forward and took the other man’s hand, pulling him in for a back-thumping hug. “Thanks, Jamal. I appreciate y’all getting here so fast.”

“Anytime, brother.”

“Hoyt! Oh my God, your face!” Ibbie came rushing up, Frank right behind.

Hoyt managed to catch his mom before she crushed him in a hug. The way he was moving told me he probably had some bruised or cracked ribs and was starting to feel them. Just one more thing that could be laid at my feet.

“I’m fine, Mom. Really. Clean bill of health.” He quailed under her fierce Mom-look. “No lasting damage,” he qualified.

She switched her attention to me. “Oh, honey, your head.” She closed the distance between us, her hand fluttering around my temple, which was likely sporting some shades of ugly purple and black by now. At length, she cupped my other cheek. “You’re okay?”

Touched that she cared, I swallowed hard. “I will be. I’m alive, thanks to Hoyt. Again.”

“How bad is the house?” Frank asked.

Hoyt gave him the update.

“Well, of course y’all can’t stay here while all this is going on. You’ll all stay with us. Gabi! Rios! Go pack yourselves and your sister a bag. Frank, go put some things together for Hoyt.” When none of them leapt immediately to do her bidding, Ibbie clapped her hands and chased after them, issuing orders like a five-star general.

Finally, Hoyt and I were relatively alone. Emergency personnel were still doing their jobs all around us, but no one was focused on us for a few moments, so I could say what I needed to say.

“We can make other arrangements.”

His brows drew together. “What?”

“My family and I. I know that after all this, you might not want us so close to your parents.”

He stared at me. “Did you hit your head even harder than I thought? What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m just… I’m sorry. For everything. Your truck. You were in two fires. You got into a huge fight and could’ve died. And your house—”

“Don’t be absurd. None of this is your fault.”

“If you’d never gotten involved with me, none of this would have happened.”

He gripped my hands. “Caroline, it’s just stuff. The important thing is that you’re okay, and nobody else got hurt.” He paused, clearly thinking of Hector, and winced. “I know you hated him, but I’m sorry about your father. I wasn’t trying to kill him.”

“If you hadn’t acted, he certainly would’ve killed you, and then finished the job with me. I’m not going to shed a tear over any of that. I just… I wanted to give you an out from this relationship, if you wanted one. I’d understand.” I owed him this. Because my father wasn’t right about much, but maybe Hoyt would decide that I was more trouble than I was worth.

“I don’t want out. I want everything.” His gaze searched my face, suddenly full of intensity. “I know this is shit timing, and maybe too fast, and you deserve the flowers and romance, but I love you. I want to make a life with you. Wherever, whenever, however you want.”

Heart pounding, it was my turn to stare. “What are you saying?”

“You’re it for me, Caroline. Marry me.”

From somewhere beyond us, I heard twin watery “Oh!”s. One of those was definitely my sister. I was pretty sure the other was Ibbie. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Hoyt. “You haven’t actually let them examine you yet. You have a concussion. You have to.”

He grinned, and the swelling in his face made him look positively piratical. “No concussion.”

“Then I’m hallucinating from mine.” Was that a thing? Hell if I knew. But he couldn’t be asking me to marry him after everything we’d just been through.

Hoyt lifted my hands to his lips, brushing a soft kiss to my knuckles. “If the prospect freaks you out, I’ll table it for a while. But I’ll ask you again. And I’ll keep asking until you say yes.”

A hand settled on his shoulder. “Maybe give her a chance to recover before giving her another shock, son.”

Hoyt just winked at me. “Sure, Dad. Where’d you park?”