Smoke on the Water Episode 7

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 7: Hoyt

The prospect of having Caroline over to the house for dinner lit a fire under my ass in a way nothing else had. Having anybody over hadn’t been on my radar for a while, but after that whole scene at the tavern yesterday, I knew people would be talking, and it was more important to me that she be comfortable. So I spent most of the day unpacking the bare essentials, corralling the rest, and obsessively cleaning the first floor. I even made a trip to Beachcomber Bargains, the island thrift store, to see if I could scrape up a little more furniture. I’d brought very little with me from Raleigh, where my roommates and I had leased a furnished apartment. The kitchen table and chairs I found had seen better days, but, like the house, they had good bones. Down the line, I’d strip and refinish them. For tonight, they’d give us a more adult place to sit than the gaming chairs and futon that made me feel like the confirmed bachelor I’d been for longer than I cared to think about.

On the drive back out to the house, I’d impulsively stopped to pick a clutch of wildflowers from the side of the road. I put them in a Mason jar I managed to scrounge up and set the whole thing in the middle of the table. Before I could decide if it looked charming or just trashy, the doorbell rang.

Shoving down uncharacteristic nerves, I wiped my hands on my shorts and answered the door, which stuck. Because, of course, it did. With a little lift of the knob and a heave-ho, I managed to drag it open.

Caroline stood on my dilapidated porch looking as beautiful as ever. But I noted a hint of nerves that mirrored my own in the way her fingers gripped the strap of her purse. She’d left her hair down tonight. The long, mink-brown waves of it cascaded over her shoulders and down her back. My fingers itched to bury themselves in the thick mass to see if it was as silky as it looked. The golden brown skin left exposed by the little sundress she wore seemed to glow in the lowering sun. The sight of those little spaghetti straps made my fingers itch to nudge them down so I could explore every inch with my mouth. Her dark eyes, usually so full of resolve and quiet strength, held hesitancy tonight, as if she was wrestling with a decision she hadn’t quite made. Maybe she was still on the fence about this real or fake dating thing.

Don’t screw this up, McNamara.

Flashing a smile, I stepped back. “Hey. Come on inside. Sorry about the mess. I’m still moving in and haven’t finished unpacking. I just closed on the house a couple weeks ago.”

Dear God, stop babbling.

“It’s fine. I’m not fussy.” But her gaze tracked over the entryway.

What did she see? The wear and tear from all the years of neglect or the gems hidden beneath it?

“The place has good bones.” Her fingers trailed over the newel post of the stairs. “Needs some TLC, but the best houses always do.”

Something in me relaxed. “My sentiments exactly. Come on back.”

I led her through the house to the kitchen, which was the most put-together room by far. The flash of her smile at the sight of the flowers made me relax a little more. They hadn’t been a bad call.

Caroline hung her purse on one of the chairs. “What smells so good?”

“Well, I’m not ashamed to admit that I adhere to the firefighter stereotype. I’m an excellent cook. What you smell is my famous arrabbiata sauce.” To give myself something to do with my hands, I lifted the lid and stirred. “I hope you’re okay with pasta.”

“Pasta of all kinds is a staple in our house. We rotate dinner duty, and it’s something all three of us could cook from a very young age.”

“Seems fair. Wine? It’s a classic chianti.” I was no connoisseur, but that had seemed a safe enough bet with a red sauce.

“Sure. Thanks.”

I uncorked the bottle and poured into a couple of jelly jars. “I do actually own wine glasses—” I was pretty sure, at least. “But I haven’t found them yet.”

Caroline’s lips curved. “I’m not a woman who stands on formality. And I’m pretty sure we don’t own wine glasses at our house, so…”

I passed her a glass and lifted my own. “Salute.


“So, how are you doing?” I didn’t specify with what. We both knew that yesterday’s questioning had already hit the island gossip train. I hadn’t wanted to do it at her job for exactly that reason, but my personal sympathies couldn’t overrule the investigation.

“I’m doing okay.”

I wasn’t sure I believed it, but I decided to take her at her word. I wanted to spend some uncomplicated time with her, and bringing up the stresses she was constantly under definitely wasn’t the way to accomplish that.

Lifting the lid on the pot, I gave the sauce a stir. “You know, I remember you from high school.”

I turned just in time to catch her epic wince. She took a hefty sip of her wine. “Well, that’s mortifying.”

“Why? I remember you as being quiet and studious. I always wondered what was going on in that brain of yours.”

“Why would you remember me at all? You were well ahead of me. A senior to my freshman.”

The sides of the jar were smooth as I rolled it between my fingers. “I made it a point to watch you.” When her brows nearly hit her hairline, I rushed on. “Not in some kind of creepy stalker way, but just… My dad works with your dad down at the boatyard, and your dad has a reputation. I worried about you. About all three of you. Especially after your mom—” I cut myself off as pink rose in her cheeks.

She didn’t meet my eyes as she set her glass down.

Way to go, McNamara. How’s that foot taste?

Feeling like I’d blown my shot already, I reached out to lay a hand over hers on the table. “I don’t say that to embarrass you. I just wanted to let you know that my looking out for you isn’t a new thing.”

Her head snapped up from where she’d been staring at my hand, and her expression was full of baffled surprise. “I appreciate that. I think. It’s been a long time since anybody other than my brother and his friends really looked out for me.”

Given everything I’d overheard about Rios since I got back, I wasn’t surprised. “For the record, I don’t believe your brother did anything. It’s really shitty that people are trying to hold him accountable just because they don’t have someone to legitimately blame.”

“Thank you.”

Because she hadn’t moved since I touched her, I eased back. “So, moratorium on the shitty stuff. Tell me about something good in your world.” God, I hoped there was something, otherwise I’d really just stepped in it.

Caroline picked up her glass again and sipped. “My baby sister has a full-ride academic scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill. She’ll be leaving for college at the end of the summer.”

“Shit, that’s a great school. Full-ride there is no joke.”

“Gabi’s brilliant.” The smile that curved her lips made it crystal clear that she was as proud of her sister as any parent.

“That’ll be different, having her off island.”

“It will give Rios and me some more flexibility. I’ll finally be able to move out of our father’s house. I’ve just got to find a place I can afford.”

And here I was with a duplex. Trying to keep it casual, I sipped my wine. “What’s your budget?” Not that it mattered. I’d rent to her at a rate she could afford if she was actually interested in the other unit. It was the first time I’d ever been in a position to really help her escape the situation with her father.


“Because this house is a duplex. I need to find a tenant for the other half.” Of course, that hadn’t been the plan at all. But this was Caroline.

She shook her head. “I couldn’t do that to you.”

I wasn’t sure what she thought she’d be doing. “You’d be helping me out. I’d intended to fix the place up first, but as you’ve no doubt clued in on, I don’t have a ton of extra time, and I’ll be spending it on this side first. C’mon, let’s take a look.”

Before she could protest, I set down my wine and nudged her toward the front door. We stepped outside, into the balmy summer evening, and circled around the lower level porch that followed the asymmetrical facade of the house to the other door. One of the few things I had managed in the past week was replacement of some rotten floorboards out here and upstairs, where I’d noted I needed to replace some railing, too. I let us into the unit and flipped on the lights to show the kitchen. As I hadn’t intended to come over here, it hadn’t been cleaned yet, so I focused on the high points.

“The floors eventually need refinishing, but they’re solid. Original oak. The cabinets aren’t what you call pretty, but again, solid.”

“Nothing a little paint wouldn’t fix,” she murmured.

“Or a lot of paint. The walls need a fresh coat throughout.”

I took her through the living room in the back corner and the other smaller room that might serve as an office or other bedroom, then up the converted service stairs to the second floor.

“There are two bedrooms up here that share a full bath. The layout is a little funky because whoever converted this place legit carved up a normal house, but it’s objectively solid, the roof doesn’t leak, and you’d know your neighbor at least a little bit.”

I could see her reluctant interest and went in for the kill, naming a ridiculously low price I prayed she could afford.

She shot me some major side eye. “You’re massively underpricing.”

I totally was, but I shrugged. “I got this thing in a short sale and paid a stupid low price for it. Between rent and, if you want to take on the painting to fix up this side yourself, I think we can call it even. We could even do things on a month-to-month basis, if that’s more comfortable for you.”

She studied me for a long minute. “Is this just another way to save me?”

I sensed I’d lose all traction with her if I wasn’t completely honest. “Maybe some. But I truly do need a tenant. Having someone who’d fix up this side would save me a lot of time and effort. And also, if you’re here, I can keep an eye out for you, whether we decide the dating thing is real or not.”

The floor creaked as she paced across the room to the window that faced the water. From this position, you could just see the expanse of it over the dunes.

“I came over here tonight to save you from yourself and tell you thanks, but no thanks to your kind offer of fake dating me. You don’t need all the stress and headaches that being linked to me in any way would cause you.”

“I’m a big boy. One who doesn’t give a shit what other people think.”

“That’s easy to say when you haven’t had to deal with the consequences of being attached to me yet.”

“Whatever they are, it’s a price I’m willing to pay. I like you, Caroline. And I want to be someone who’s in your corner, in whatever way you’re okay with.”

With a half laugh, she turned and waved a hand at me. “See? You say stuff like that, and it makes it really hard not to want to date you for real.”

I held in the fist pump, but not the smile. “I’ll keep that in mind. But we’re not talking about the status of our relationship just now. We’re talking business.”

She caught her lower lip between her teeth, and it was all I could do to keep my focus on the conversation rather than wanting to do the same with my own teeth. If she said yes to this, there was a strong possibility that her answer to the rest would be no. And she needed to know that was an option, no matter what I really wanted long term.

“Listen, my renting to you is entirely unrelated to the rest of it. You need a place. I have a place. One that’s got room for all three of you and is available as soon as I can get to the hardware store to have keys made. Do you want it?”