Smoke on the Water Episode 4

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 4: Caroline

“A little bird told me you have a secret.”

More than a little distracted, I locked the door behind me and turned to my baby sister. “And what might that be?”

Gabi grinned, her eyes sparkling. “That you’re dating Hoyt McNamara.”

Pure instinct prompted me to reach out to cover her mouth for quiet as I darted a glance back toward the house, even though I knew—I knew—Dad had already left for work. That swift kick of panic in my chest left me breathless.

Gabi dragged my hand away from her mouth, the smile gone. “Geez, Caro. I was just teasing. Mostly. I want all the details.”

Exhaling a slow breath through my nose, I herded her toward the car. “First, don’t you dare speak a word of this around Dad. You know how he gets.” There was a reason I didn’t date, and his name was Hector Carrera. A fact I really should have considered last night when Hoyt came riding to my rescue. Again.

My sister slid into the passenger seat. “You’re a grown adult. He doesn’t have a say who you do or don’t see.”

Exasperated, I backed out of the drive. “You and I both know that so long as I live under his roof, it’s his rules.” No matter how ridiculous they might be. He needed to feel like he was in control. The head of the family. So far as he was concerned, what he said went. “Not that it matters, because I’m not dating Hoyt.”

Gabi, ever the instigator, held up her phone. “Then why is everybody saying you are?”

I sighed, keeping my eyes fixed on the winding road that looped around the perimeter of the island to the vacation rental we were on deck to clean this morning. “Everybody? Who is everybody?”

“You know how the island is. Everybody.” She started scrolling through her messages. “Lisa texted me first thing this morning. She heard from Derek, who was at the tavern last night when it all went down. Believe me, I want to hear more about what went down in a minute. And then Tara… she got it from Jasper’s sister, Jenny.”

The cracked vinyl of the steering wheel creaked under my tight grip as I recalled that there had actually been some locals in the bar during Hoyt’s showdown with Troy. And Jasper… I’d thought he’d keep anything that happened at work to himself. “Great, so now Derek’s spreading stories?”

Gabi shrugged. “Maisey called, too. She heard it from Edna at the post office. It’s like wildfire.”

Frustration soured the eggs I’d made for breakfast. Between the mother who’d left us when Gabi was only six, and Dad’s abusive tendencies, which were one of the worst-kept secrets on Hatterwick, our family had always been the subject of island gossip. Then Gwen Busby had disappeared without a trace, and as the last person to see her alive, Rios had been wrongly accused of a crime he hadn’t committed. No charges, no proof—there’d been no body, after all—but that didn’t matter to the public at large. We’d been dodging whispers and stares ever since.

“And now they’ve got a new story to chew on,” I muttered.

Gabi put down her phone, her expression softening. “Hey, it’s just silly gossip. It’s not like the stuff with Dad or… you know.”

I knew she was trying to be supportive, but it was hard not to feel like just another character in the island’s ongoing drama. “I know. It’s just… tiring, you know? Being the subject of the latest rumor mill.”

Her slight fingers curled around my arm in a squeeze. “I know. But hey, at least this time it’s about something good, right? Hoyt’s a catch.”

I couldn’t help but smile a little at her attempt to lighten the mood. “Yeah, I guess there’s that. But we’re not dating. He doesn’t deserve to be dragged into our family’s soap opera.” And that was something I should’ve thought about last night before I’d agreed to dinner and even considering this insane plan.

“So you said. And yet everyone says otherwise. What exactly went down at the tavern, anyway?”

“Nothing.” The answer was automatic, my desire to shield Gabi overriding everything else.

“Clearly, it was something. Try again, big sister.”

“Just an entitled customer thinking I owed him my time outside of work. It was nothing I couldn’t handle, but Hoyt overheard and intervened, announcing I was his girlfriend.”

My sister clasped her hands over her chest, and I could practically see the hearts in her eyes. “That’s so romantic.”

Romantic wasn’t quite the word I’d have chosen.

That Hoyt had stepped in to claim me as his without hesitation had filled me with more than simple relief and gratitude. His presence had given me an anchor in a situation that had spiraled beyond my comfort zone. But he’d slipped into the role so easily, his voice firm, his stance protective.

It had been an act. I’d known that. But for a fleeting moment, it had felt disarmingly real. His gaze had met mine in silent question or assurance, and in that split second, I’d felt a warmth I hadn’t expected. A part of me had wondered what it would be like if it wasn’t a ruse. If someone like him actually saw me. Beyond the gossip. Beyond the shadows of my family’s past. To be wanted for who I was, not pitied for what I’d endured.

I’d shot that idea down in an instant as being ridiculous. Wanting such a thing, even knowing the fleeting daydream of it had been fueled by all those old teenaged fantasies about him, had brought on a sharp pang of guilt. I’d worked too hard to foster my own strength over the years. To be the one to handle what needed handling. To not need rescuing. I hated myself a little bit for being so comforted by having someone else take over, if only for a few moments. But God, I was so tired of all of it.

Then Hoyt had gone and announced he’d like to take me out for real. On a date. As if I were just some normal girl. And he’d compounded everything by saying his help wasn’t contingent upon my saying yes. That it was just the right thing to do, to keep me safe. He’d put the decision about whether this relationship was real or fake entirely in my hands.

I’d thought about it all night, tossing and turning in my narrow bed. The man was temptation personified. A true-blue hero with ethics and heart and a noble streak as wide as Pamlico Sound. Then there was that body, hardened and honed by the labor of his job. I wanted my hands on it. Wanted to map every dip and curve of muscle. More, I wanted his hands on me. Imagining those work-roughened fingers trailing over my skin had left me so hot and bothered last night, I’d had to come out of the covers and lay beneath the faint breeze of the ceiling fan until the sheen of sweat had cooled and the urge to touch myself had passed. Such activities were for the privacy of the shower, not the room I shared with my sister.

I’d almost convinced myself I could give things with Hoyt a shot for real. God knew I wanted to. But so long as still lived with my father, even fake dating him would be a problem. Not that I thought Dad actually had much of a chance of intimidating Hoyt, as he had the handful of guys I’d tried going out with in high school and after. But Dad wasn’t the only problem. By aligning himself with me, Hoyt was likely to inherit some of the trouble that had stalked the rest of us. He deserved better. And that meant I couldn’t have him. No matter how much high school me was throwing a conniption fit at the lost opportunity.

“Didn’t you think it was romantic?” Gabi pressed.

“It wasn’t real.”

“But he came to your rescue, Caro! That means something.”

“Yeah, it means he’s a nice guy.”

“Exactly! You deserve a nice guy.”

“We both deserve a lot of things. Doesn’t mean we’re going to get them.” Life had taught me that lesson in spades.

What we had, we’d worked and fought for. Gabi had busted her ass in school to earn that scholarship that was the ticket to a new life off island. Rios and I had stayed to see that she made it that far. What we’d do once she’d left was still up for debate. We’d both learned not to count our chickens, so until Gabi was safely at Chapel Hill, we were sticking to the plan. That plan was to keep our heads down and avoid doing anything that might prompt our father to fuck everything up for her.

“I think you’re making a mistake. You’ve crushed on Hoyt forever.”

I kept my face bland even as heat crawled up my neck. “Says who?”

“Says those old school notebooks where you doodled his name in hearts.”

Why the hell hadn’t I burned those?

“It was a long time ago.”

“So you’re saying you’re not attracted to the sexy firefighter who came to your aid like a hero in a romance novel?”

“I’m saying we don’t live in a romance novel, so I’m not expecting a happy ending.”

“I bet a guy who looks like that is good at giving them,” Gabi muttered.


“What? I’m eighteen, not ignorant. You totally deserve a boatload of happy endings.”

Face flaming, I pulled into the driveway of the rental. “I’m not having this discussion.”

“Ah ha!” She pointed at me in triumph. “That’s proof that you are attracted.”

“It’s proof I’m breathing. Come on.”

As I slipped out of the car, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being on display, like some sort of spectacle for the islanders to gossip about, though I didn’t actually see anyone around. This entire row of cottages was vacation rentals owned by the company that hired me to clean. But Gabi was right; at least this time, the story flying around was a relatively harmless one. To me, anyway. A far cry from the dark whispers that usually followed our family. But mine was the last name Hoyt’s should be linked with.

Entering the code into the digital lock, I hauled my tote of cleaning supplies into the house and nearly dropped it. A wave of disbelief washed over me. The place was a disaster. The living room looked like the scene of a wild party—cushions were strewn across the floor, a couple of beer bottles had toppled over on the coffee table, spilling their contents onto scattered magazines. More empties were scattered around the room. In the kitchen, dirty dishes were piled high in the sink, food remnants caked and dried on plates and utensils. A faint, unpleasant odor of stale food and alcohol hung in the air, mixing with the musty scent of the sea. A trail of sandy footprints led from the front door through the hallway, as if the beach itself had been dragged in. The once pristine vacation home now resembled a college kegger, a stark contrast to the neat, welcoming oasis it was meant to be.

My heart sank at the sight.

Gabi stepped in behind me. “Holy shit. They aren’t getting their deposit back.”

“You’ve got that right. Let’s get started. It’s going to be a long day. I’m gonna be scrambling to finish this in time to make it to my shift at the tavern.” But maybe by the end, I’d have figured out what to say to Hoyt when I rejected his kind offer.