Smoke on the Water Episode 8

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 8: Caroline

“I can’t believe you signed a lease without talking to us first.”

I ignored my brother’s implied criticism and led my family up the steps of the two-story beach house that would now be home, trailing a hand over the wood railing smoothed by time and tidal winds. As most houses on Hatterwick, this one sat up on brick piers, elevated several feet above ground level to allow room for flooding. It was a necessary architectural choice here on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The cedar shake siding was faded to the color of driftwood from decades of salt air. It would need some patching where moisture had caused the wood to rot and shingles to loosen, but Hoyt would see to that. The brickwork on the two chimneys marking either end of the steeply pitched gable roof was crumbling in spots. That might actually be a bit outside the range of home improvement projects he could tackle himself, but there’d be someone on-island who could handle it. Probably.

Using the keys Hoyt had dropped off yesterday, I opened the apartment and led my siblings inside. “It was a really good deal. I had to make a fast decision or someone else was going to get it.”

That wasn’t strictly true. I was pretty sure that Hoyt would have waited as long as I needed to make the decision. But it seemed like a better answer to my brother than admitting the truth—that I had been impulsive.

As a rule, I was never impulsive. Impulsive meant costly mistakes and trouble. But here was my own personal hero, putting himself out there again to give me exactly what I needed. If I hadn’t said yes, it would’ve likely been another few months before I was able to afford something. And then who knew how long it might have taken to find anything open? The prospect of getting away from my father immediately was too appealing to second guess.

Rios and Gabi trailed me inside. “What did you agree to pay for this place?” I could hear the underlying tone in his voice that indicated he wasn’t impressed with what he saw.

I told him the rate Hoyt and I had agreed upon. “Month-to-month, without the requirement of last month’s rent or an additional deposit.”

Suspicion darkened Rios’s face, his dark brows drawing down in a forbidding scowl. “Why would he rent the place for that cheap? Even in this condition, he could get three times that in the current market.”

At that reminder, I squashed the sense of guilt that had been dogging me since I’d accepted Hoyt’s more than generous offer. At least the one about the apartment. “He said he got it on a short sale, so he doesn’t have to charge as much. And part of the deal we made is that I’ll do the painting and fixing up myself. I totally support that, since it means I’ll have more control over things. It will be nice to have a space of my own that I can decorate and make a home.”

Certainly our father’s house hadn’t actually been home since our mother left twelve years ago. No amount of good intentions could make up for the anger and bitterness that had soaked into those walls since Mama had walked out without a word, leaving us all behind. This place would be a fresh start for all of us.

“Are you sure that’s all you’re expected to pay?”

I tore my brain away from contemplating cabinet colors. “What do you mean?”

My brother leveled me with hard eyes and an even harder jaw. “Is he using this to strong-arm you into dating him?”

For a long moment, all I could do was stare at him. “Wow. This is what you think of me? Of him? You really can’t imagine a scenario in which he might actually want to date me, and I might actually want to date him back?”

Rios’s expression softened. “I didn’t mean it like that. But you don’t date. And suddenly this guy is back on-island, and you’re moving into the other half of his duplex, and everybody says you’re dating. You can’t blame me for asking questions.”

No, I couldn’t blame him for that. Rios hadn’t exactly been a trusting guy before the shit went down with Gwen Busby’s disappearance. Since then, his natural suspicions of everyone’s motives had been dialed up to eleven.

I’d known the rumors about me and Hoyt would’ve reached him well before now, and I supposed I ought to have been grateful I hadn’t had to deal with this sooner. Grateful, too, that he hadn’t confronted Hoyt directly. After everything he’d been through, he hard a hard time believing that there was anyone outside his circle on this island who didn’t want to hurt us.

“You know why I don’t date. Moving away from Dad alleviates a big part of that. Either way, Hoyt is a good man. He’s stepped in on more than one occasion to defend me when he didn’t have to. He’s gone out of his way to make it clear that his help and this lease have nothing to do with whether I choose to date him for real or not.”

Rios frowned. “What do you mean, for real?”

I blew out a long breath. I hadn’t meant to say that. “Part of that stepping in was pretending to be my boyfriend in front of Troy Lincoln. After that, he basically said that we could fake date to keep the creeps away. But he’d like to date me for real.” And dammit, I wanted to date him for real, too. I wanted to believe this connection I felt could be the start of something. But I hadn’t decided yet.

“Why wouldn’t you date him for real? He’s totally acting like a knight in shining armor, and he clearly cares for you.” My sister insisted.

“He doesn’t know her well enough to care yet.”

The glare I shot at Rios could’ve stripped paint. “Gee, thanks. For what it’s worth, I believe he’s sincere. But I haven’t decided one way or the other.”

“Again, why not?” Gabi pushed.

“It’s complicated, hermanita. He is my landlord now.” If I’d believed for a moment Hoyt would use that against me in the event we tried dating and it didn’t work out, I’d never have signed the lease. But I still didn’t quite know what to make of him or his interest.

“Right. Who everybody thinks you’re already dating. Why wouldn’t you want all the benefits of that being real?”

“Please stop,” Rios begged. “I can’t think about what any of that actually means.”

Gabi stuck her tongue out at him.

Apparently desperate to let the subject drop, my brother folded his arms and pivoted to take in the kitchen. “Getting this place habitable is gonna take a lot of work.”

“It’s not like we don’t have plenty of experience cleaning.” I’d brought the supplies in my car to get started.

“There’s also the fact that it’s going to need to be furnished. You know Dad’s not going to let you take anything out of the house.”

“That’s fine. I don’t want to take anything except what’s mine. My clothes, the stuff in our room, whatever. And if I need to move it out and leave a letter informing him, well, I intend to be gone before he gets it.” Maybe that was the chicken shit way to handle it, but direct confrontation never went well with Hector Carrera. “I intend for all of us to be gone before he gets it.” God knew, I didn’t want either of my siblings to pay for what he’d perceive as my sins if they were still in the house.

Rios scooped a hand through the curling mop of his hair. “He’s not going to take that well.”

“He was never going to take it well. Can you think of a better way to handle it?”

After a moment’s consideration, he shook his head. “Yeah, I got nothing.”

“Look, I didn’t do this just for myself. I know Gabi’s headed off to school in a couple of months, and your plans haven’t been firmed up yet, but there’s room for all of us here.”

Gabi bumped Rios on the shoulder. “Can you get over your overprotectiveness and look at the opportunity we have here? We can make our own home. A real one. No more tiptoeing around. No more having to abide by all his rules. Don’t you want that?”

“Of course I want that.”

I knew then that we had him. He could never say no to Gabi.

“Fine. The lease is signed. We might as well make the most of it.”

“Yay!” She bounced up and threw her arms around him, pressing a noisy kiss to his stubbled cheek. “Let’s start talking about paint colors and who gets which room.”

My sister’s excitement fueled my own as I gave them the grand tour, such as it was. Room by room, we discussed the work that needed to be done. As I had said to Hoyt, the place needed a lot of TLC. There were probably bigger things that would need to be done in the long term. But he’d told me straight out that I could paint whatever I wanted. I’d never been able to choose a color for my room before. The idea of it filled me with a ridiculous level of excitement.

In the end, Gabi and I got the bedrooms on the top floor, and Rios was taking the bottom. I suspected he chose that one because he’d be closest to the door, should we have any unplanned visitors.

“Well, there’s a hell of a lot of painting that needs to be done before we move in,” he announced. “That’ll give us time to get some air mattresses and other basics. At least you’ll have a work crew.”

I looked up from the notebook where I’d been making lists of projects. “Oh?”

“Ford and Jace get back on-island tomorrow. I’ll round up both of them and Sawyer. With all six of us, we ought to be able to make short work of this.”

“You don’t have to do that. They’re only just back.” Certainly, the last thing any of his friends wanted to do was to be put to work.

Rios swung an arm around my shoulders. “Let us do something for you for once.”

I leaned into him, soaking up the comfort of family solidarity. This would be a good move for all of us. He’d see.

My phone buzzed with a text, breaking the moment. Pulling it from my back pocket, I glanced at the screen and felt my stomach drop.

Hoyt: We need to talk about something important regarding the house.

Heart tripping with anxiety, I stared at his message and felt my newfound sense of freedom wilt with uncertainty.

Had Hoyt changed his mind?