Smoke on the Water Episode 6

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 6: Caroline

Unable to shake the itch between my shoulder blades, I scanned the tavern. As it was just after five on a Tuesday, the crowd was more heavily local, though there were still plenty of tourists mixed in. It was those locals who had me ill at ease. After everything that had happened this past week with Chet and Troy, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

How many more scenes would Ed tolerate before he cut me loose? They weren’t my fault. Not exactly. And he’d always been supportive and understanding. But if his business was hurt, I wouldn’t be able to blame him. I needed this job, just like I needed all the other side gigs I could pick up.

I took drink orders for a table of six and headed back for the bar. A familiar figure was perched on a stool toward the end. His sandy hair needed a trim, as did his stubbled cheeks. But he didn’t look too bad, all things considered.

I closed the distance and wrapped an arm around his shoulder in a half hug as I tipped my head to his. “Are you here to raise a glass in memory of your dad, or are you hanging out to keep an eye on me?”

Sawyer’s arm slid around my waist and squeezed. “Is it that obvious?”

“You haven’t been in since the funeral.” Not surprising. More often than not, the whole reason Sawyer had come in had been to retrieve his father from the bar. This place had to be full of memories for him.

“Rios mentioned the trouble you had the past week. We didn’t think it would be a bad thing for one of us to keep an eye out, and he’s tied up on a job.”

It wasn’t the first time my brother had asked one of his friends for an assist. I didn’t mind. All three of them were like other brothers to me. With Ford and Jace gone off to college, that meant Sawyer was the only one left.

He pivoted toward me, and I noted humor mixed with the grief in his eyes. “Though, from what I hear, you’ve got an ally we hadn’t counted on.”

Hoyt. Shit. Had my brother already heard we were “dating” or only about the two confrontations?

Yep, definitely wasn’t touching that one with a ten-foot pole. If Sawyer was here for recon, he wouldn’t be getting more info from me.

I stepped away from him and moved behind the bar. “The situations got handled.” I set glasses beneath the taps and began to fill the order. “What about you? How are you holding up?”

Those lanky shoulders jerked in a shrug. “It’s been two months. I keep expecting to come home and find him nodded off in his recliner with a bottle of Jim Beam on the table.”

With the death of his father, Sawyer was all on his own. His mom had died in childbirth trying to bring a baby girl into the world when he was only seven. The baby hadn’t made it either, and Hank Malone had never recovered from the loss. He’d fallen into the bottle and hadn’t come back out, so Sawyer had been forced to grow up fast. Hank hadn’t been a mean or problematic drunk. Hadn’t been a bad guy. He’d just been utterly heartbroken and hadn’t had the strength to pull himself together for the son who’d remained.

Because I knew Sawyer wasn’t likely to want a beer, I automatically filled a glass with the root beer he preferred. As I set it in front of him, I wondered what it was like to love someone so much that their loss absolutely broke you. Gabi, with her miraculous romanticism, would no doubt find it terribly swoon-worthy. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to feel that deeply. That kind of love opened you up to the potential for incredible loss. I had no desire to give anyone that kind of power over me.

The front door opened, and I glanced automatically, mentally measuring the size of the party against the available tables. But my brain short-circuited as I spotted Hoyt striding in, dressed in his uniform of cargo pants and a navy SFFD T-shirt. He’d shaved the scruff for work, so there was nothing hiding the view of that strong jaw. My traitorous heart lurched with a nauseating combination of joy and dread. I’d promised myself that when I saw him again, I’d talk to him about why this whole relationship thing—be it fake or otherwise—was a terrible idea.

But I wasn’t ready yet. I hadn’t thought I’d need to have this conversation until dinner tomorrow.

Then I registered he wasn’t alone. The fire chief, Michael Thompson, was with him. So maybe they were here for dinner for a work thing?

Hoyt caught my eye and flashed a smile that seemed a little strained around the edges. When they headed in my direction, my palms went damp. Everything about the two of them shouted “Bad news!”

My brain frantically ran through what the problem might be. During shifts, my phone stayed in my locker, so if anyone had tried to reach me about an emergency with one of my siblings, they’d have had to call the tavern directly. I hadn’t heard the phone ring, and nobody had come to get me. But the fire department frequently took medical calls on the island, so what if this was them coming to notify me in person?

Hoyt stopped at the edge of the bar. “Hey, Caroline.”

I surreptitiously wiped my hands on a bar towel, then kept it in my hands to squeeze as the anxiety cranked up to eleven. “Hey. What’s going on? Is everything okay? Is it Gabi? Rios?”

He lifted his hands, palms out. “Shit. No. We didn’t mean to worry you. Nobody’s hurt.”

I loosed a breath. That was something. But then, why were they here?

“We just need to ask you some questions,” Chief Thompson added.

Questions? About what? If the chief was here, this was something in an official capacity. The anxiety came roaring back as I tried to imagine what any of this had to do with me.

From his perch at the bar, I sensed Sawyer tense, waiting for action himself.

Chief Thompson’s eyes were kind. “We can tell you’re busy. We can wait for a little bit, but the questions we have shouldn’t take too long if you can find a stopping point.”

“I…” I looked at the tray of waiting drinks. “Just a minute.” I flagged down Tracy, one of the other servers on shift. “Can you take this out to table twelve?”


I tried to ignore her look of blatant curiosity as she lifted the tray and headed out.

Ed closed in from the other end of the bar. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing bad. We just need to have a few words with Caroline.”

What did it mean that Hoyt was no longer talking?

“Y’all can take it back to the office for some privacy,” Ed offered.

Bless the man. I squeezed his arm in gratitude as I led the two firefighters through the kitchen door, away from prying eyes. The office was a tiny, square room, with barely enough space for a battered metal desk and a couple of chairs. By the time we crowded inside, the nerves were strong enough to make me shake.

“Go on and have a seat. Make yourself comfortable.” Chief Thompson’s words and tone were kind, but I recognized an order when I heard one.

Because there wasn’t anywhere else to go, I circled behind the desk and dropped into the rolling office chair. It gave a resounding squeak of protest and tipped back so fast I nearly got thrown into the wall. With a yelp, I grabbed onto the desk to steady myself.

Hoyt flashed a smile that was probably meant to be reassuring. “Looks like Ed needs to get some new office furniture.”

“We don’t spend much time in here, as a rule. What’s going on?”

Chief Thompson took the only other chair. “Were you at 1487 Sandpiper Road earlier today?”

I blinked. “Yeah. I do cleaning for Shoreline Rentals. I was turning it over for the next round of guests coming in today. Why? What happened?” Except I knew. Because why else would the fire department be here in an official capacity?

“There was a fire there this afternoon.”

“Oh, my God. Was anyone hurt?” I tried to think what time the renters were meant to be coming in.

“No. Nobody was inside.” Hoyt perched on the edge of the desk because there was nowhere else for him to sit. “The next tenants were the ones who called in the fire, actually. Everybody’s okay.”

Good. That was good. “The house?”

Hoyt winced. “It’s less okay. But it didn’t burn to the ground.”

I covered my mouth. “Oh, God.”

Chief Thompson picked up the thread again. “I’m sure this was a shock. Mr. Foster mentioned you and your sister do the cleaning?”


“Was she with you today?”


“What time did the two of you arrive?”

I took them through it, answering an array of questions about the condition of the house, what time we’d left.

“We finished up around one because I had to be here for work at one-thirty. I had just enough time to drop Gabi off at a friend’s before I came in for work. You can see my time card by the back door where I clocked in.”

“That’s fine, and we’ll do that.” The chief made some notes on a little pad. “When you go on your cleaning jobs, do you use products already in the house or do you have one of those little tote things to carry around your stuff?”

“I have a tote. Some of the houses have supplies, but I don’t rely on them being up to date. Sometimes the guests will take them. Why they’d want a bottle of Windex as a vacation souvenir, I have no idea.”

“Do you still have yours? Or do you think you could have left it at the house?”

I frowned. Where was he going with this? “No, I have it. It’s in my car. Why?”

“Can we go check to make sure it’s there for sure?” Chief Thompson asked.

Fresh anxiety spooled in my belly. This sounded a hell of a lot like they were working their way toward an accusation. Without a word, I rose and scooted past them, leading both men out the back door to the employee parking lot. My hands were shaking as I popped the trunk, terrified of what I might see. But the bright blue tote was still there, each of the bottles lined up like soldiers along both sides.

Beside me, Hoyt relaxed.

“Did your sister have a second one?” Thompson asked.

“No. We just have the one. Frequently, it’s just me. She only helps on weekends and in the summer. Seriously, what is going on here?”

The fire chief offered a kind smile. “We’re just trying to get to the bottom of that to see if what happened was an accident or on purpose.”

I swayed as all the blood drained from my face. “You don’t think that I—”

“No.” Hoyt’s voice was firm. “There’s no reason to think you had anything to do with this. We’re just following up leads and crossing off possibilities. There was something melted on the stove that appeared to be the point of origin. We’re just trying to figure out what it was. We thought it might have been a bin of cleaning supplies that could have accidentally been left there. But yours is here, so everything is fine.”

Everything definitely wasn’t fine. A house I’d cleaned had burned. From the sound of it, Gabi and I were the last ones inside it. What if Mr. Foster fired us over this?

I scooped a hand through my hair. “My boss…”

“Mr. Foster. What sort of relationship do you have with him?”

“I mean, we don’t have much of one. I’ve been cleaning his vacation rentals for a few years now. He gave me a chance when a lot of people wouldn’t, and he pays fairly. I have no reason to want to hurt him.” I couldn’t stop myself from looking at Hoyt. “That’s what this is about, right? Looking to see if I have a motive?”

It was Thompson who answered. “It’s just part of the process to ask. Foster also reported you have a good working relationship and that you’re very conscientious. He has no reason to blame you for this.”

I blinked back a sudden rush of tears. Chief Thompson was a gruff but fair man. He hadn’t had it out for our family in the way a lot of other people on the island had. “Thank you.”

He offered a business card. “That’s all we’ve got, for now. If you remember anything, please let us know.”

“Of course.”

“We’ll let you get back to work. McNamara?”

“I’ll be along in just a few, Chief.”

As the older man walked away, I wished like hell I had something to do with my hands. Because this was it. This was the part where Hoyt backed out of the agreement he never should’ve offered in the first place. Which, great, then I didn’t have to be the one who came across looking ungrateful or whatever. But damn, it still felt like I was being dumped, and the whole thing hadn’t even been real.

Before I knew what was happening, Hoyt pulled me in for a hug. It wasn’t tight or long, not overly familiar, but it lit up every inch of my body where it pressed against his. He smelled of some woodsy body wash and sea air. God, he smelled good. It took everything I had not to bury my nose against his throat and sniff. Instead, I accepted this for the friendly comfort it was meant to be. Maybe he was letting me down gently.

With one last little squeeze, he stepped back. “I just wanted to say sorry for having to bring that all up into your workplace. Nature of the job. And I’m really looking forward to tomorrow night.”

Wait… what?

But he wasn’t looking at me with revulsion or suspicion.

“Are you sure that’s still a good idea?”

“Absolutely. I’m cooking. Under the circumstances, I thought you might appreciate not being paraded in public.”

It’s not over.

Which was absolutely stupid of me to think about when I was the one who planned to end this farce before it went any further. But yeah, having that conversation in private would be better.

“That’s really thoughtful of you.”

He flashed those dimples. “I’m a thoughtful guy. I can pick you up—”

“No. No, I’ll meet you.” The last thing I needed was my father catching wind of this, if he hadn’t already. “Where?”

Hoyt reeled off an address and a time and began walking backward. “I gotta get back to work, but I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I lifted a hand in a reluctant wave. “Tomorrow.”