Bungalow Nights
Author:Christie Ridgway

Every lover is a soldier.


A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another. If these minds love one another, the home will be as beautiful as a flower garden. But if these minds get out of harmony with one another, it is like a storm that plays havoc with the garden.



VANCE SMITH HAD FACED down Taliban bullets with more cool than he felt sitting on the beachside restaurant’s open-air deck. He was here to meet his companion for the next month, and not that he’d admit it to anyone, but there was an undeniable film of sweat on both palms—sweat he couldn’t even swipe against his jeans thanks to the fiberglass cast that bound one wrist and the soft brace that was fastened around the other.

Sometime during his short hospital stay, a dumb-ass private with Picasso pretensions had taken a Sharpie to the pristine polymer wrapping on his left arm and drawn a big-busted, half-naked warrior princess, detailed enough that Vance had been forced to beg his cousin Baxter this morning for some help in disguising the X-rated image. He was meeting an impressionable young person, after all.

Grimacing, Vance glanced down at his cousin’s solution, then back at Baxter himself, who was sitting across the table, nursing a club soda. “Really?” he said to the other man, not bothering to blunt the edge to his voice. “A tat sleeve? That’s the best you could come up with?”

Baxter blinked. In their youth, people had mistaken the two of them for twins and they still had the same blond hair and blue eyes. But while Vance sported a soldier’s barber cut and casual clothes, his one-year-younger cousin had a salon style and looked the epitome of his nickname, All Business Baxter, in a conservative suit and tie. His gaze dropped to the nylon fabric stretched over Vance’s cast. “I say it’s inspired. And I could have made a worse choice, you know. As it is, you almost blend in.”

Vance grunted. He supposed Bax was right. The sleeve’s design wasn’t demonic, or worse, straight out of a prison documentary. Instead, the images were intricate and colorful weavings of tribal signs, tropical flora and curling waves. Nothing to scare off a child.

“Snuggle up closer with Teddy if you’re still worried,” Baxter advised. “Then your new little friend won’t even notice them.”

It wasn’t embarrassment but annoyance that burned Vance’s skin. “Shut up,” he said, adjusting the toddler-size stuffed bear on his lap. A big blue satin bow was tied around its neck. “And remind me why you’re not at work again?” His cousin managed the numbers end of the family business, Smith & Sons Foods, that grew avocados and citrus in a fertile area about sixty miles southeast of here. “Shouldn’t you be counting packing crates or something?”

Baxter tilted his head and seemed to consider the question. “Good point. I am very busy. But I’m also the only relative who gets more than the rare two-line email from you. My three sentences confer a certain responsibility upon me.”

Vance looked toward the ocean to avoid the censure in the other man’s gaze. The restaurant was situated at one end of Southern California’s Crescent Cove, a gentle curve of land that created a shallow cup for the gray-blue Pacific water. Today’s bright July sun scattered gold discs onto its dappled surface. A beautiful sight, and as different as could be from the stark landscape of Afghanistan that he’d been gazing upon for months, but he didn’t find it soothing. There was that kid in his future. Four weeks playing father figure to a stranger.

“‘Confer a certain responsibility,’” he muttered, taking his uneasiness out on his cousin. “You’ve turned pompous, you know that?”

“It must be those sixteen hours a day I sit behind a desk,” Baxter replied without heat. “Not everyone has spent the last half year or so dodging IEDs and getting in the middle of firefights.”

“It’s my job.” He was a combat medic, and though it wasn’t what he’d originally planned for himself, Vance held no regrets about being the one to aid his fallen brothers on the battlefield. He did it damn well. Lives had been saved.

And some not.

“Uh-oh,” Baxter said now. “Stay with me, fella. You look ready to bolt.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” He could still hear his grandfather’s voice in his head. A man never breaks a promise. And Vance lived by that. His fingers absently played with the ends of the stuffed bear’s satin ribbon. “When her dad was dying in that godforsaken valley, I swore to him I’d give Layla a vacation to remember at Beach House No. 9.”

The injured colonel had carried the details of his planned trip in the interior webbing of his combat helmet, where it was common for soldiers to tuck valued letters and precious photos. Like Vance, he had learned of Crescent Cove from Griffin Lowell, an embedded journalist who had waxed poetic about his childhood summers at the place to anyone who’d listen. Those idyllic reminiscences had served as an escape for all of them from the drudgery and brutality of war, but must have struck a particular chord with the officer, because he’d arranged the cottage rental for his upcoming leave and stashed the particulars with the photo he carried of his little girl.

Hiding behind a straw-and-mud wall, while Vance was doing his best to stanch the bleeding from the older man’s multiple wounds, Colonel Samuel Parker had one thing on his mind—his daughter. As death closed in, he’d extracted from Vance a promise to act as stand-in tour guide during Layla’s month-to-remember. Vance considered it a point of honor to obey the good man’s final order.

“Hey.” Baxter jerked in his chair, his attention riveted over Vance’s shoulder. “Is that...?” He wiped a hand across his mouth. “It couldn’t be.”

Alarmed by his cousin’s sudden loss of urbanity, Vance glanced around. “Oh,” he said, relaxing. “It’s Addy. You remember Addison March—her mom is friends with our mothers, she grew up down the road from our ranch—”

“I know who she is,” Baxter interjected. “But why is she here? Why is she coming toward us?”

Vance once again glanced over his shoulder. Addy, a small, curvy blonde dressed in a pair of flat sandals and calf-length pants, was crossing the deck toward their table. She didn’t look the least bit worthy of the thread of distress in his cousin’s voice. “I hired her to act as a nanny. I couldn’t very well be alone with a little girl. I ran into Addy when I was checking out the cove a couple of days ago and—”

“But you said you’d never heard of this place before that reporter mentioned it. I’ve never heard of it before. Of all the gin joints,” the other man muttered, pushing out of his chair with agitated movements. “I’ve got to go.”

“Hello,” a female voice said from behind Vance’s back. Addy had arrived. “Leaving already, Baxter?”

His cousin froze and his panicked expression would have been comical if it wasn’t so out of character. “You feel okay?” Vance asked him.

“I’m fine. Fine,” Baxter muttered, sinking back into his seat. “Never been better. Not a care in the world.”

“Whatever you say.” Vance gestured toward one of the free chairs at the table. “Sit down, Addy. You’re right on time. Layla should be here any minute.”

“With her uncle?” the young woman asked.

“I suppose.” The arrangements to meet today had been made via email through Phil Parker, the contact he’d been given by Layla’s father. If you asked Vance, the man came off a bubble short of level, his often-vague replies free of punctuation and peppered with irrelevant references to kismet, fate and surfing. Each email ended with namaste, whatever the hell that meant.

“The stuffed animal’s a nice touch,” Addy said.

The mention of Teddy irritated Vance all over again, so he slipped the photo he carried out of the breast pocket of his sports shirt. Yeah, he’d sort of dressed up for the kid, too. His best jeans and a short-sleeved button-down, straight from the dry cleaner’s plastic. He slapped the picture onto the tabletop. “Her father had this with him. It’s what gave me the idea.”

Layla Parker stared up at the three of them. She was sitting on a short flight of concrete steps, one of her knobby little-kid knees sporting scabs. Her long hair was in pigtails tied below each ear, revealing a wide forehead over big brown eyes. She appeared to be approximately ten years old and she stared into the camera, a little smile curving her lips as her skinny arms hugged a potbellied teddy bear to her middle.

“Ah,” Addy said, smiling. “Cute.”

“Yeah.” Her dad’s fingers had been trembling when he fished out the picture. Isn’t she beautiful, Vance? You’ve got to do something for her. You’ve got to do something for my girl. What choice had there been? The husky emotion in the mortally wounded man’s voice had impelled Vance to say he would.

He’d also done everything in his power to save the colonel, but it hadn’t been enough. Too soon he’d been gone, leaving Vance alone with his pledge to fulfill the fallen officer’s final wish.

“I’ve got to go,” Baxter said again.

“Sure.” With Addy on scene, there was another person at the table to smooth over the awkwardness of the initial meeting with young Layla. He angled his head toward his cousin. “Thanks for—”

Vance broke off as the breeze made a sudden shift, blowing a cold breath across the nape of his neck. The small hairs on his body—even the ones surrounded by the infernal cast and brace—went on instant alert as if eager to escape. He tensed. Soldiers learned to rely on their gut, and Vance’s was suddenly shouting that the person who should be leaving was him.

But though he’d been scared shitless a hundred times, since joining the army he’d never ducked his duty and he wasn’t about to start now. Anyway, what could possibly endanger him in this sun-drenched civilian world?

That weird breeze chilled him again, and Vance jerked his head in its direction. Sunlight dazzled him. Something dazzled him, anyway, and he was forced to blink a couple of times before bringing into focus the deserted hostess stand across the deck and the lone figure positioned before it. It was a very pretty woman, probably in her mid-twenties, wearing a silky-looking dress of swirling jewel colors that hit at midthigh and was belted around her slender waist. Medium-brown hair waved past her shoulders and her forehead was covered by a deep fringe of bangs.

A new feeling tickled him. He should know her, he thought, frowning. And not just in the way any red-blooded man would want to know a woman that hot. She looked familiar.

And nervous. Her fingers combed through the ends of her long hair as she went on tiptoe to scan the area. When she settled back on her heels, she bit down on her bottom lip.

God, didn’t he know that mouth?

He wouldn’t have forgotten kissing those lips, would he?

Still puzzling it out, he narrowed his gaze. He was thirty and she was about five years younger, which crossed her off his list of high school hookups—even if one might have coincidentally ventured here, an hour from home environs. As for more recent conquests—until six months ago he’d been in a yearlong, serious relationship. Meaning if this lovely little mama was part of his past it would have been in his wild and crazy years...wild, crazy and hazy.

He glanced over at Baxter, who had been his partner in crime—okay, he’d been the designated driver—whenever Vance could pry him free of his Aeron office chair. “Cuz.”

Baxter started. He’d been watching Addy, who’d been watching the waves curl toward shore. “Uh, what?” His hand smoothed over the tasteful stripes of his preppy tie even as he slid a last look at the blonde seated beside him.

Vance couldn’t cipher what was going on there, not when he had to determine the identity of the leggy girl at the hostess stand. “Don’t be obvious, but check out the woman waiting for a table.” He saw his cousin lift his gaze in the right direction. “Do I know her?”

Bax’s eyes flicked back to Vance’s face. “Huh? How would I be aware of all your acquaintances?”

“It’s a long shot, but...” But he had this dreadlike feeling that she wasn’t a mere acquaintance. He fought the urge to ogle her again, though the guy in him was clamoring for a second look. It was a bad idea, though. If she was a former...interest of his, he didn’t want to attract her attention. He’d become a little classier—and a lot less of a party animal—over the past few years, and it would only embarrass them both if she attempted reacquaintance and he was forced to admit he’d forgotten her name and how he knew her.

How well they might have known each other.

Could I really have forgotten that mouth?

Hooking a foot around a leg of his chair, he gave it a little twist, presenting more of his back to the brunette. “Never mind.”

“Um,” his cousin said, his gaze drifting over Vance’s shoulder again. “I guess she’s given up waiting on the hostess. She’s walked onto the deck and it looks as if she’s coming in this direction.”

Hell! Vance did a rush shuffle through his memory banks. In college, he’d double majored in hedonism and procrastination until dropping out to join the army. Returning to California after his four-year stint, he’d briefly gone back to his bad boy ways. Though he’d soon straightened up and begun a relationship with a woman he’d thought was his future, it still left time for him to find then forget the wavy-haired woman he could practically feel from here.

He took a chance and glanced back. She was standing still again, scanning the restaurant’s patrons with a hint of anxiety in her expression. He hoped some asshole hadn’t stood her up. As he watched, her eyes started to track toward their table and Vance hurriedly turned his head. Sliding lower in his seat, he made to grab a menu from the table to use as a shield, then froze.

What the hell was he doing? If he hid behind the vinyl folder, Addy would think he was addled. Bax would laugh his ass off. Vance considered himself an idiot just for having the craven impulse.

Anyway, no chance I would have forgotten that face.

Preparing to start some relaxing small talk with his companions, he cleared his throat. Addy and Baxter both looked at him and then, as one, their gazes transferred to a spot above his head. Vance’s belly tightened. A delicately sweet scent reached him on another of those cold, cautionary breezes.

“Vance?” a throaty, feminine voice asked. “Vance Smith?”

That slightly scratchy timbre goosed him somewhere deep inside, waking his previously snoozing sexual urges with a start. Shit, he thought, tensing. Now wasn’t the time for this. Now was the time for Layla Parker to show up. And if the girl arrived this very minute, then an awkward encounter with the female he’d forgotten could get lost in the flurry of meeting the colonel’s daughter. His libido would settle back to its deep sleep. Without moving a muscle, he waited a beat for his wish to come true.

When his hope went unfulfilled, Vance swallowed his sigh of resignation and slowly half turned in his seat.

“So...The Breakers?” he asked, naming one of his old hangouts as he shifted. “Or was it Pete’s Place?”

“What?” she asked.

He made himself look into her eyes. They were big and a soft brown, circled with thick dark lashes. Damn, Vance thought, those eyes, that mouth, the whole package stirred him up.

And stirred a memory, but for the life of him, he couldn’t place it.

“I’m trying to recall where we met,” he clarified. There was nothing to do but confess, though the way his body was responding it seemed unbelievable her identity wasn’t burned in his brain. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know...”

“Oh.” She shook her head, and a pair of gold hoop earrings swung. “We haven’t met. I took a guess. You have the shortest haircut out here.” Her lips curved just a little and—

It clicked. That tiny smile snapped the missing piece into the puzzle. It was the same one worn by the bear-toting kid in the officer’s photograph.

His gut knotted. Hell, he thought, stunned. Oh, hell.

She was right; they’d never met, but he knew her all the same. As a matter of fact, he’d been waiting for her. Yes, Colonel, she is beautiful.

So damn beautiful Vance felt a little sick.

The sexy woman standing two feet away was none other than Layla Parker. Layla Parker, the “little girl” whose dreams he’d been charged with making come true.

Good God, he thought. This changed everything, didn’t it? The little girl was all grown up.

* * *

VANCE WAS SO UNBALANCED he didn’t get to his feet, he didn’t speak, he might not have been breathing. Baxter’s manners kicked in, thank goodness, and it was he who shepherded the colonel’s daughter to the empty chair beside Addy. Layla let herself be led away from Vance and gave her attention to his cousin and the woman he’d hired to live at Beach House No. 9 with him and the little girl.

The little girl who wasn’t a little girl in the least.

Still trying to come to grips with that, he let Baxter and Addy initiate introductions and continue the conversation. Layla smiled and spoke, even as Vance didn’t hear a word she said.

Her big browns kept stealing glances at his face. She was clearly puzzled by his continued silence, but he couldn’t do more than try to ignore his body’s reaction to her while thinking of the speediest way to put an end to this impossible situation.

A server, apparently noting every chair at their four-top was occupied, hurried over to discuss the menu and take requests. He considered telling the aproned girl they wouldn’t be sticking around that long, but Baxter—who’d apparently changed his mind about leaving—and the others were already making decisions and communicating food orders. There was nothing he could do but ask for a sandwich and iced tea.

So they’d have lunch. Share a meal before bidding goodbye. Layla was more than twice the age he’d expected and surely she had better things to do than hang out at the beach with a virtual stranger.

Just as he had the comforting thought, she addressed him. “My dad wrote me about you.”

Vance blinked, looking up from the photograph he’d tossed on the table before, now half-obscured by a place mat. “He did?” They’d known each other, of course—the officer had held a keen interest in the men under his command and he’d been deeply respected and admired in return—but their real closeness had come on that fateful day when Vance had been one of the patrol accompanying the colonel across the valley to his meet with a tribal elder. Fighting to save someone’s life brought about a profound intimacy.

Her gaze dropped to the stack of thin metal bracelets circling one delicate wrist. She spun them one way and then another. “He sent me long letters, describing the people he worked with, the scenery around him, that sort of thing.”

Vance thought of the stingy emails he tapped off to his family and for the first time experienced a pinch of guilt. “Ah.”

“He was a good storyteller,” she said in that sweet rasp of hers. “If he hadn’t been a soldier...”

Her words dropped away, leaving behind an awkward pause. The fact was he had been a soldier and they all knew how that had turned out.

Addy broke the uncomfortable silence. “What is it you do?”

Yeah, Vance thought, good lead-in. Layla would want him to know she had a life that made spending four weeks at Crescent Cove inconvenient, if not downright impossible.

“Karma Cupcakes,” she answered.

Karma cupcakes? He didn’t know what the hell she meant, but it reminded him of something else. “Where’s your uncle?” he asked abruptly. For God’s sake, surely the man should have realized Vance had been operating under a misconception. I was expecting a ten-year-old, Phil!

Layla shrugged. “About now? When he can, he practices tai chi in a city park from noon to one.”

Didn’t that just figure. Namaste. It only solidified Vance’s burgeoning belief that the man was flaky enough not to pick up on the oddness of the situation he’d arranged for his grown niece. No wonder Layla’s father hadn’t entrusted his last request to his brother. “And after that?”

“He drives the cupcake truck.” Glancing around at their confused expressions, she released a laugh.

A little husky. Young.

Yet dangerous miles more mature than the laughter of the female he’d been expecting to entertain at Beach House No. 9. God, what a joke.

“We operate a mobile bakery, Uncle Phil and I,” Layla informed them.

Addy looked interested. “Gourmet food trucks are the new big thing.”

“Exactly,” Layla said, nodding. “We’re called Karma Cupcakes, and we make the batter and bake the cakes in our truck. Then we sell them at various locations in Southern California. We have a regular schedule of farmers’ markets and popular stopping points. Our customers happen upon us or track our whereabouts via social media.”

Baxter straightened in his chair. “I read this article in Commerce Weekly—”

“That’s got to keep you very busy, Layla,” Vance said over him. He’d moved into Beach House No. 9 that morning, but because he’d let go of his apartment upon being called up, since returning to Southern California he’d squatted in the second bedroom at Bax’s city town house for a few days. It was more than enough time to know that the other man devoted himself to business twenty-three-and-a-half hours out of twenty-four. His cousin could go on forever about some dry article he’d read in a financial journal, only postponing the understanding at which Vance and Layla needed to arrive.

The understanding that they’d part ways as soon as he took care of the lunch check. “And summer’s probably a hectic time of year for you,” Vance added.

“Sure,” she agreed. “But we have it worked out so I can stay at Beach House No. 9, if that’s got you worried.”

Of course that had him worried, dammit.

“Uncle Phil can make friends in a minute, including with the couple who owns this restaurant. Once they heard our story, they agreed to let us park the truck overnight in their lot adjacent to the coast highway. In the mornings I’ll do the mixing and baking as usual, in the afternoons, we can...” She shrugged.

We can... Oh, God, he was a bad man, because the we cans instantly spread across Vance’s mind like a set of erotic playing cards. Blame it on the dearth of female companionship a combat tour offered. Blame it on the train wreck that was his last romantic relationship. Hell, place the blame squarely on the beautiful young woman who was sitting a tabletop away, the summer sunshine edging her feminine figure. Who could blame him for his sudden and sharp sexual response? She was big eyes and a tender mouth, soft tresses and golden skin. Nothing could stop his gaze from tracing the column of her throat to the hint of cleavage revealed by the V neckline of her dress.

Unbidden, he pictured himself nuzzling the fabric aside with his mouth, tasting the sweet flavor of her flesh, finding her secret points of arousal and exploiting them with his hot breath and wet tongue. Her long legs would move restlessly, creating a space for his hips, and she’d open to him with a blissful sigh of surrender that was the single best turn-on a man could experience.

A man who’d made promises to her father.


His gaze refocused on the little-girl photo on the tabletop. “This isn’t going to work,” he said, emphatic.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

Vance stifled a groan and met her eyes. “Look, I didn’t expect you—uh, it to be like this.”

She stared at him, clearly perplexed. “But you said my father spoke about it. About me being here.”

“Yes, yes. You were in his thoughts at the very last. However...” Vance could feel Addy and Bax looking at him like he was a monster, but hell, he felt like a monster. Juiced up on sex and ready to grab the fair maiden and abscond with her to his deep, dark den. As a reaction it was near violent and damn embarrassing. “Maybe we could meet for a walk someday and talk about it. Or perhaps a phone conversation would be better. I know, I’ll tell you the whole story in an email.”

“You said July at Beach House No. 9,” Layla insisted, her brows meeting over a small, straight nose, betraying she had more backbone than he’d assumed at first glance. “That was my dad’s request—it was his last wish and I think I should fulfill that. It’s what you said you wanted, as well.”

Yeah, he could certainly understand that the colonel’s daughter felt compelled to follow through with what her father had asked of them. It was something he took very seriously himself. But...but...

I thought you were a little kid!

He’d have to find some way to let her down easy. What kind of man would admit he was afraid of getting behind a closed door with her? It would have to be some other excuse, an emergency, or...

He was considering and discarding options when the server reappeared, a tray of drinks in hand. She rearranged items already on the table, scooting the photograph closer toward Layla to make room for a sweating glass of tea.

Layla’s gaze landed on it and her brows came together in another small frown. Shit. Deciding he’d only feel more foolish if she knew of his misunderstanding, he shifted forward to grab the picture before she could connect the dots.

Only to realize he still had a lapful of teddy bear. Wonderful. He was worried about his dignity while sharing a chair with ten pounds of stuffing and fake fur. What else could he do but get rid of it?

“I forgot,” he said, half standing to thrust it in her direction, “this is for you.”

Layla stood, too, automatically reaching for it, then froze, Teddy clutched between her hands. Her gaze flicked to the photo, flicked back to the bear, flicked again to the photo. A flag of bright pink appeared on each cheek. “Oh,” she said, her voice going small. “Oh, God.”

Consider dots connected, Vance thought. Grimacing, he reached out with his casted arm to snatch the picture off the table.

Now she was staring at the colorfully covered plaster wrapped around his hand and wrist, her face losing its pretty blush. “How...how did you do that?” she asked slowly.

He looked down. Damn Baxter. “They’re not real tattoos.”

She made a little face. Her mouth wasn’t wide, but it was top-heavy, the upper lip more prominent than the lower.

Sue him, he found it fascinating.

“I know that,” she said. “I meant...how did you get hurt?”

He hesitated.

“I heard... Uncle Phil said...” She swallowed. “It was while you were trying to save my father, right?”

“It was while I was trying to get us both out of the danger zone,” he admitted, never wishing more that the attempt had turned out differently. “To my deep, deep regret, I wasn’t successful.”

Layla sank back to her seat.

Vance shot a glance at Addy, who immediately scooted closer to the other woman. “Are you all right?”

“Of course.” But Layla’s gaze didn’t move off him, even as he dropped back into his own chair. “Now I understand why you’re worried about our month together, though.”

He was pretty certain she didn’t have a clue that his concerns ran to the limited power of cold showers over a suddenly raging, adolescent-like libido. “Yeah,” he said, anyway.

“Well, you don’t have to be concerned any longer.”

“Good.” She must understand it wouldn’t work, he thought. And if she decided against the plan, he wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the cancellation.

“Your injuries won’t affect our month together at all, though.” Her shoulders squared as if she was shrugging off her earlier embarrassment. “Because, of course, I’ll help you while we’re together at Beach House No. 9.”

Oh, damn, she didn’t understand anything. “Layla, no.”

“It’s only right.” She’d gone from soft gold to steely spine. “You were hurt while trying to save my father’s life. So now it’s my turn.”

He frowned as another blast of premonitory chill wafted across the back of his neck. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s karma,” she said, and a little dimple fluttered near the corner of her mouth. “You took care of my father, so for the next month I’ll take care of you.”