Smoke on the Water Episode 3

Chapter 3: Hoyt

“And what have we learned today?” I fixed Tim Jensen with a gimlet eye and waited.

The sixteen-year-old, who considered himself an amateur inventor, ran a hand through his singed hair. “That gunpowder measurements are important, and added shrapnel does not give a sparkly effect to a cannon blast.”

I pressed my lips together to hold in a laugh. Since the kid hadn’t actually gotten hurt with his homemade cannon experiment, the situation was kinda funny. But part of my job as a firefighter was to impress upon the teen that such experiments were not appropriate or safe. “And?”

Tim curled his shoulders forward. “And I shouldn’t be trying to get ahead on next year’s physics project about ballistics and mini explosions without adult supervision.”

He shouldn’t have been trying to make a cannon out of old pipes and a basic fuse system at all, but what teenage boy didn’t, at some point, attempt to launch small projectiles at targets? For me and my friends, it had been a potato cannon. Plenty of boom, far less likelihood of actual fire or injury.

“Remind me to introduce you to the fine art of the potato cannon.”

A car turned into the driveway, bumping far too fast along the rutted road. It had barely come to a stop beside the house before the drivers-side door opened and an older woman stumbled out, racing toward Tim. His mom, presumably.

“Oh, my God! What happened? Are you okay?”

I intercepted the panicked woman. “He’s fine. I can’t say the same for his cannon—”

“Cannon?” the woman shrieked.

“Tim, why don’t you explain your experiment to your mom?”

The beseeching look the boy turned on me suggested that this was far worse punishment than anything else I could dish out.

Them’s the breaks, kid.

As Tim reluctantly recounted the decimation of his homemade cannon, which had shot backward when fired, blowing apart and spraying wires, pulleys, and timber supports across the yard, in addition to his “ammunition.” Really, it was a miracle the kid hadn’t lost an eye, or worse. I signaled to the rest of the crew to begin packing up. The assorted small grass fires his experiment had started had been effectively doused. By the time we were ready to go, Tim was grounded for the rest of his natural life.

As we rolled away from the Jensen house, Pete Novak grinned over at me from the driver’s seat. “Bet this wasn’t the kind of call you expected to be taking when you took a job back on-island, huh, L-T?”

“Not so much, no.” After all the years coming up through the ranks in a big city fire department, I was accustomed to far more action. But I hadn’t gotten into firefighting because I was an adrenaline junkie, so the idea of risking life and limb with slightly less frequency was more than a little appealing. The change certainly made my mother happy. “Any day that doesn’t result in somebody getting hurt or losing everything is a good one in my book.”

“I’ll drink to that. Wanna hit up the Pelican to check it out after we get off shift? I’ve been hearing good things about their blackened shrimp.”

“Nah, I’ve got a standing invite to my mama’s for dinner. It’ll be over by the time we’re through with shift change, but she’ll have made me a plate. Figure I’ll go pick it up, then head home and crash. Another time.”

“Holding you to it.”

By the time we got back to the firehouse and did what needed doing, it was more than two hours past the end of my shift. Food I didn’t have to make myself was definitely high on my list. I could do exactly as I’d planned and drop by Mom and Dad’s for the inevitable leftovers. Or I could swing by the tavern for takeout and maybe get a few minutes of conversation with Caroline. I hadn’t liked leaving as we had the other day, without knowing she was okay. But we’d had places to be and, as Drew had pointed out, there was nothing more I could reasonably be expected to do.

Not that either of those things had stopped me from thinking about her ever since.

We weren’t friends. I doubt she even considered me more than a passing acquaintance in the same way ninety percent of islanders were. But I hadn’t been able to get those rich, dark eyes out of my mind. There’d been hurt and frustration mixed in with the inevitable embarrassment. But there’d been fire, too. A desire to fight, barely leashed.

I chose not to analyze why I wanted to take on those battles for her. Maybe because I remembered the younger version of her who’d tried to make herself small. I’d always wondered if that was because she wanted to be less of a target at home. The possibility had never sat well with me. The idea that people than her father were out to make her life difficult now was even harder to swallow. I wanted her to think of me as an ally. A friend. I told myself that was why I turned my truck toward OBX Brew House.

But the moment I stepped into the bar and spotted her, I knew I was lying.

She moved with ease and grace, a heavy tray full of food balanced on one shoulder. Her hair was bundled in another of those messy buns, though several curling strands had fallen by now, teasing the nape of that lovely neck I wanted to touch and taste. Yeah, my motives for being here definitely weren’t purely altruistic. I was seriously attracted to this woman. Was she dating anybody? I had no idea. It wasn’t like I could ask such a question without cranking the rumor mill up to overdrive. But damn, I wanted to know if she was available, and if she was even interested.

If she was…

One thing at a time, McNamara.

At this hour, the kitchen wasn’t too far from closing. As no one occupied the hostess station, I wove my way through tables and took a seat at the bar. No one else was behind it, and I didn’t see any other servers. Was she here on her own? Only a handful of the tables were filled, and a quick scan of the room told me that most of the patrons were tourists, but still.

“You’re too pretty to be working in a place like this, Caroline.” The slightly slurred voice had my head whipping up from the menu.

Across the room, I spotted her straightening from refilling the man’s water glass. I didn’t have a clear view of him, but Caroline’s body was ramrod straight, one hand curled around the edge of her tray so tightly I could see her white knuckles from where I sat.

“Will there be anything else for tonight?” Her tone was as stiff as the rest of her.

“What time do you get off, sweetheart?”

“Perhaps you’d like your check.”

“Aw, now, don’t be like that. You’re always shutting me down. I just want to talk to you.”

I was already out of my seat and closing the distance when I saw the guy reach out as if to touch her. I slid in between them, blocking his access. “Is there a problem here?”

Caroline’s eyes flew to mine, and there was no mistaking the relief.

“This doesn’t concern you, McNamara.”

Recognizing Troy Lincoln, I made a snap decision and hoped Caroline would forgive me later. Shifting closer to her, I flashed a smile with sharp edges. “Well Troy, seeing as I’m pretty sure you’re harassing my girlfriend, I’d say it does.”

Troy’s blond brows drew together. “She’s not your girlfriend. You haven’t been back but like a couple of weeks.”

“Yep. And I know a good thing when I see one. Not gonna let it pass me by. You, however, are going to pass her by for the rest of the summer. And really for the rest of your life. She’s not interested. And she’s taken.”

I didn’t dare look at Caroline to see how she was reacting to this declaration. My entire focus was on the asshole who thought he was entitled to her time and attention. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen him act like this. As the star pitcher for the high school baseball team, he’d earned a reputation back then for not taking ‘No’ for an answer. I had zero expectation that had changed since graduation, and I definitely wasn’t going to stand by and let Caroline become his next victim.

Troy scowled and rose from his seat, stepping into my space. Given I had two inches and at least an extra thirty pounds on him, I wasn’t intimidated. I just stared down my nose and waited. Several long, tense seconds ticked by before he evidently thought better of engaging and shoved past, shoulder checking me in the process. I pivoted and watched him storm out of the bar.

When I was sure he wasn’t coming back, I turned to Caroline and found her staring at me with wide, dark eyes, the tray clutched to her chest like a shield.

Okay, so that wasn’t how I’d expected this encounter to go.

I rubbed at the heat on the back of my neck. “Look, I apologize for going all caveman there, but he’s not a guy who backs off just because a woman asks him to, and I got the impression this has been an ongoing thing.”

With a slow exhale, she nodded, her shoulders relaxing a little. “Ed normally shuts it down, but he’s on the mainland for a doctor’s appointment today, so I’m closing tonight. The other server on the schedule quit this afternoon, so I’m on my own, other than Jasper.” She hooked a thumb toward the kitchen, so I assumed Jasper was the cook.

I didn’t know a thing about Jasper, but all this said she had no one to back her up out here. “If it’s all the same to you, I’m gonna stick around to make sure he doesn’t bother you, and that he’s not hanging around when you leave to give you any more hassle.”

That flicker of surprise crossed her face again. Jesus, when was the last time someone other than me had done something kind?

“Thank you.” She hesitated, frowning. “You realize what you told him is going to get all over the island, right?”

Had I registered that in the moment I’d claimed her? Sure. That had been the point. Did I regret it? Well, that depended on what she did with it.

“It doesn’t bother me if it does. If you have a boyfriend, I suppose we should rectify that to make sure he doesn’t want to put a fist in my face.” As a fishing attempt, it wasn’t exactly subtle, but when was the opportunity going to present itself again?

The corner of that full mouth quirked up. “No, no boyfriend. I don’t date.”

As good news went, I’d take it. Convincing her to take a chance on me would be easier than having to watch her with someone else.

“Well, if you change your mind on that, I’d love to take you out sometime. But that is one hundred percent not a condition of any of this. I want to make sure you’re okay and not further harassed by that creep. If the illusion of being attached to me will achieve that, and you’re okay with it, then so am I.”

When she didn’t immediately reply, I thought maybe I’d pushed too far.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Doing what?”

“This whole coming to my rescue thing? Again. At all. We barely know each other.”

I considered saying something about how I had a thing for damsels in distress, but that didn’t seem like the right direction. I shrugged. “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

If anything, my answer seemed to confound her more.

The sound of a male voice hollering, “Order up!” jolted her back into action.

“Did you want to order something? I assume you came in here for food.”

“I did. Just got off shift. I thought I’d pick up something to go. But under the circumstances, I’ll just eat here while you lock up.”

“Sure. Kitchen technically closes in twenty minutes.”

“Then have Jasper surprise me. Whatever’s easy.”

“You’ve got it. Grab a seat wherever.”

I picked a table where I could watch the entrance, in case Troy decided to come back. The position also allowed me to watch Caroline as she finished closing out the remaining tables. I inhaled the blackened redfish and fries she brought me, then put myself to work, helping flip chairs on top of tables after she ushered out the last of the evening’s patrons.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I’m here. Might as well.”

She didn’t argue, and between the two of us, I hoped we managed to shut down a little quicker than she would’ve on her own. Jasper headed out as she was locking the main doors of the place.

Finally alone, I asked the question that had been circling around my brain. “So, just for purposes of the gossip mill, are we or are we not dating? Again, it is completely fine if this is just an illusion for a while.” My pride would get over it. Eventually. “I just want to be clear on our story.”

No longer the focus of prying eyes, her guard dropped enough that I could see how tired she was. How much of that was the work and how much the burden of everything she carried?

“If you truly don’t mind, it might alleviate a few problems. But I don’t want to use you like that.”

I’d love for you to use me in any way, shape, form, or fashion you like. “It’s not using me since it was my idea. If I had a sister, I’d want someone to protect her, too.”

“You’re a good guy, Hoyt. I always knew that.”

Score. But she hadn’t actually answered my question yet about whether this was real or fake. Maybe she hadn’t decided.

She locked the back door, and I walked her over to her car, a beat-up Chevy Malibu that had seen better days. Was that thing even roadworthy? I considered asking, then thought better of it.

“Just throwing it out there for consideration. In order to sell this, we’re going to have to actually go out and be seen together. On dates. Why don’t you let me take you to dinner, and you can decide after that whether you want this to be a relationship in name only for cover or if you’d be willing to date me for real?”

One hand on the car door, she stared at me again. I hoped that was surprise instead of horror.

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah.” Because I definitely couldn’t tell which end of the spectrum she fell on, I backpedaled. “Unless that makes you uncomfortable, in which case, we can just call it the name only and leave it at that.”

Even in the poor light of the parking lot, I could see the blush rising in her cheeks. Both corners of her full lips curled up this time. “I’d like that. The dinner, I mean. And the chance to think about it. My next night off is day after tomorrow.”

“It happens that’s one of my nights off, too. So that’s a plan.”

“Is it?” That smile flickered again. “Don’t we need a time and place?”

“We’ll sort it out.” It had been ages since I’d been on a first date, and the last ones hadn’t mattered. I wasn’t sure how I knew this one did, but I wasn’t going to question it. “Get on home. Drive safe. I’ll see you on Wednesday.”

After one more brief hesitation, she slid into her car, which cranked without issue. Her brother had probably seen to that. Another plus in Rios’s favor.

I watched her taillights disappear, resisting the urge to follow her. There’d been no further sign of Troy, and I had no reason to believe she wouldn’t be fine. But as I stood in the empty parking lot, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling of being watched.