Bungalow Nights
Author:Christie Ridgway

chapter TWO



LAYLA HURRIED FROM the restaurant and headed across the parking lot toward the Karma Cupcakes mobile bakery, grateful for the breeze against her hot face. The lunch that started awkward had ended awful and even the cheery pink-and-kiwi paint scheme of the food truck didn’t raise her mood. Uncle Phil had positioned it close to the Pacific Coast Highway to catch the attention of passersby. Its awning was popped open to shade two tiny bistro tables and to reveal the glass cases displaying the baked goods she’d prepared that morning.

As she drew nearer, a car pulled into the lot and parked nearby. A woman rushed to the counter and walked away with a half dozen of Karma Cupcakes’ most popular flavor, a rich devil’s food enhanced with cinnamon and cloves that they called Chai Chocolate.

Layla’s uncle met her eyes as their latest customer drove away. “Been here less than ten minutes and made four sales already,” he announced, rubbing his hands together. “A month at Crescent Cove could turn out to be an excellent business decision.”

It should have been a happy thought. Instead, misgiving was squeezing her heart like a cold hand. A month at Crescent Cove. A month with Vance Smith.

Layla frowned at her uncle. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell him I’m twenty-five,” she said.

“Uh...what?” Uncle Phil looked like a professor emeritus of Surf Culture 101 in his khaki shorts, Guatemalan-weave shirt and stubby gray ponytail. “What’s wrong?”

“He was expecting a ten-year-old.” Recalling her moment of comprehension, another wash of heat crawled up her face. As the server made room on their table, Layla’s gaze had landed on a photo of her much younger self. Suspicion had dawned, only to be confirmed scant moments later when Vance had thrust Teddy into her hands. “A ten-year-old, Uncle Phil.”

His expression turned guilty. “I didn’t realize. I was just so pleased you’d have this vacation...you know, some time to socialize with a young, uh, person about your own age.”

Some time to socialize? Surely Uncle Phil wasn’t trying to matchmake!

He avoided her narrowed eyes and gestured toward the fuzzy bear. “I suppose the age confusion explains the stuffed animal.”

She frowned at the oversize toy clutched in her fist. Yes, when Vance had passed it over, she’d finally fathomed the mix-up—and wished for a sinkhole to open at her feet. “And he should have told you he isn’t old enough to be my father, either,” she grumbled.

Uncle Phil’s eyes widened in what seemed to be faux-innocence. “Oh?”

Too irritated to call him on it, Layla threw herself into one of the folding chairs set out for customers who couldn’t wait to sample their purchased confections. “He must be around thirty.” Rangy, but with powerful shoulders and biceps. Blond hair. Eyes a startling blue. Likely in possession of a nice smile, but she wouldn’t know because he hadn’t found a single reason to send one her way.

Who could blame him? “He hired a nanny.” Addy March herself had revealed that tidbit, then waved off Layla’s apology for the confusion. The other woman was a graduate student researching the movie studio that had made silent films at the cove into the 1920s, and she’d voiced her intention to still use Beach House No. 9 as a home base.

Which meant Layla’s own impulsive offer to “take care” of the man with the two hurt arms was wholly unnecessary. Yes, she’d embarrassed herself like that, too...though wouldn’t anyone feel a certain obligation under the circumstances? He’d been injured trying to save her father. But with Addy there, if he needed to open a pickle jar or fish something from a cupboard, he didn’t need Layla to lend a hand.

She glanced over her shoulder at Captain Crow’s restaurant, a little shiver tracking down her spine as she remembered the moment the afternoon had gone completely haywire. While attempting to sign his credit card receipt, Vance had fumbled the pen. It had rolled across the table toward Layla and when she’d scooped it up and offered it to him, their fingertips had met.

Hers still burned.

She rubbed them against the silky fabric of her dress and directed her focus to the ring on her left index toe. It was hammered gold embedded with a tiny mother-of-pearl quarter moon. “What would you say if we just close shop and head up the highway? We can drive to Zuma. The Malibu crowd loves our cupcakes.”

“I thought you were going to move into Beach House No. 9 this afternoon,” Uncle Phil said, sounding puzzled.

“Maybe I should drop the idea.” That was Vance’s intention. No, he’d declared about their upcoming month together, even after she’d invoked karma. Not gonna happen. Then he’d mumbled something about her father apparently forgetting she was all grown up. She’d been prepared to persist until that moment when they’d touched.

A car whined past on the nearby highway, then she heard the squeak of the food truck’s door and the muffled scrape of her uncle’s hemp sandals on the asphalt. He lowered himself to the opposite chair. “But we talked about all this. When he contacted me, you said yes.”

“I knew it’s what Dad wanted, so it’s what I wanted, too. But that was before I met Vance.”

Uncle Phil straightened in his seat. “He did some—”

“He didn’t do anything,” she said. “Nothing like you’re thinking.” It was what she’d done—how she’d reacted to that simple touch. It felt as if her soul had attempted to jump out of her suddenly scorched skin. She didn’t like it.

“He’s rattled you,” Uncle Phil observed. “That’s a first.”

Exactly. At twenty-five, she didn’t have a legion of exes, but she’d had her share of relationships. They’d been enjoyable and ended amicably, due, she believed, to her training as a soldier’s daughter. She was accustomed to goodbyes, absolutely aware that tears didn’t solve anything, and she didn’t foolishly hope to have a long-term lock on anyone. Dating had been casual and fun, and not once had she felt as though her nerve endings had been set on fire.

Now she was proposing to spend a month at the beach with the one man who lit her flame. A man who was a soldier to boot.

“I’m just thinking the plan’s a mistake.”

Uncle Phil merely raised a brow. He rarely gave out advice, and she loved that about him—that and how he’d stuck around all those times her father was deployed when she was a kid so she’d have clean clothes in her drawers and three meals on the table. He might not always have the strongest grasp on details—which might go some way to explaining why her father had instead picked Vance to carry out his last request—but her uncle had managed to sign every one of her permission slips. Maybe now she could return the favor.

“You’ve been going on about your trip around the world for years and my month in Crescent Cove was postponing your departure date,” she said. “If I bail now, you can leave right away.”

“My passport’s expired.”

“I saw the application in the food truck. If you pay extra they’ll expedite it.”

Uncle Phil rubbed a palm over the silvery whiskers on his cheek. “Well, if you’re going to renege, you better get down to that beach house and let the man know.”

She hesitated. Even though Vance had told her their month was off, he’d also told her he had some things of her father’s to hand over. Maybe Phil could take care of that for her.... But look what had happened when she’d left him in charge before! “You’re right,” she said, rising. “I’ll go see him.”

For the final time.

* * *

VANCE HAD GIVEN Layla written instructions to Beach House No. 9 that included a hand-drawn map. The bungalow was situated at the opposite end of the cove from the restaurant, which meant she had to get back on the highway, then turn off it again onto a narrow road that led to an even narrower track. The path of crushed shells was only wide enough for one car and took her along the backside of the enclave of unique homes, all of them stuccoed or shingled in natural colors and accented with shades that reflected the poppies, bougainvillea and tropical greenery thriving in the summer sunlight.

At the end of the route was the place she was looking for. It was larger than most in the cove, two stories of dark brown shingles and rough-sawn trim painted the blue-green of mermaid scales. Layla parked her compact in the driveway that led to a double garage, then was forced to give herself a stern talking-to in order to exit the car.

Even then she didn’t head straight for the entrance to Beach House No. 9.

Instead, chin down to keep her profile low, she sidled between it and the much smaller cottage next door. A few breaths of clean ocean air would brace her for the conversation ahead. She didn’t flatter herself that Vance Smith would wilt with disappointment because she was leaving without further argument, but she also didn’t want him prying into the reasons for her acquiescence. What would she say?

You make the back of my knees sweat.

I’m allergic to so much sex appeal.

How could I possibly sleep under the same roof as you?

When Layla felt the give of soft sand beneath her feet, she continued onward, not stopping until she reached the angled shelf of damply packed grains left by an outgoing tide. Only then did she lift her gaze, and her heart stuttered a little, overwhelmed by the beauty of her surroundings.

On her left was a craggy bluff that reached like the prow of an ocean liner into the gray-blue water. Behind her and to her right sat the charming abodes of Crescent Cove, maybe fifty of them, stretched along the sand or nestled against the vegetated hillside. In front of her was the expanse of the Pacific, an undulating surface that drew the eye toward the horizon. Above that, the sun hovered like it did in a child’s painting, an unabashed yellow orb against a sky so deep an azure it appeared one-dimensional.

Her father had wanted to bring her here.

Layla’s throat tightened as she heard his voice in her head. I’ll help you build an entire city of sand castles someday, he’d promised her once when they’d had to cancel a planned beach outing due to an emergency at the base. We’ll have weeks together, he’d told her on another occasion as he’d packed in preparation for heading back into combat. Time to relax with a clean wind on our faces and the cool Pacific at our feet.

It would never happen now.

Ducking the truth of that was exactly why she’d allowed Uncle Phil to handle the communication with Vance, she realized. By taking herself out of the loop, she’d put a layer between herself and the reality of her father’s death.

The reality that he was never coming here to Crescent Cove. That he was never coming back anywhere.

You weren’t the child of an active-duty soldier without contemplating the fact that your parent might not return alive. Her father had loved his work—the army was his passion, his identity, his occupation, his preoccupation. He’d accepted the risks. And dutiful daughter that she was, she’d responded with years of cheerful goodbyes, newsy letters and upbeat emails.

If anyone had asked, she’d have said she was as prepared for what might come as anyone could be, though she didn’t dwell on potential disaster. The life of an army brat—and the tutelage of Uncle Phil—had also taught her it was better to go with the flow, to live for the moment and, while acknowledging that the other shoe might drop at any time, not to hold her breath waiting for it to happen.

But the shoe had fallen six weeks ago and she didn’t think she’d taken in oxygen since.

Not to mention the daily emails she’d been sending to the account of a man no longer able to receive them.

“Are you all right?” a voice called. Vance’s voice.

“Stupid wind,” she said, dashing away a hot tear with the back of her hand. “I’m fine.”

She felt him come up beside her and steeled herself not to make any sudden moves. He was inches away, but her skin still twitched, some kind of sexual startle response, despite her damp lashes and clogged throat.

This was why she wouldn’t fight to stay with him.

Vance made a short, awkward gesture with his cast. “It’s a beautiful spot.”

“We always lived inland. I have a duplex northeast of here by forty minutes if the traffic’s not beastly. But my dad and I talked for years about vacationing right on the beach.” And this was the place he’d planned for them. It was where he’d still wanted her to come as he lay dying. Where she supposed he wanted her to say farewell.

A seagull screeched and wheeled too close, causing Layla to stumble back. Vance sidestepped, using his big body to brace hers so she didn’t fall. The sensation of his broad chest against her shoulder blades sent a ripple of pleasure through her and she closed her eyes. “Layla,” he murmured, his warm breath touching her temple. “Things will turn out all right.”

Would they? Wrapping her arms around her waist, she forced herself to move away, planting her heels firmly in the sand and keeping her gaze focused on the horizon. How could they when she was still sending messages ending with “Love, Layla” into the ether? When she was letting herself be run off from fulfilling her father’s last request?

She hugged her body tighter, reconsidering her urge to escape. Perhaps there was another, truer source of her disquiet, she mused. Maybe her reluctance had nothing to do with Vance Smith. More likely, her imagination had conjured up a heated reaction to him as an excuse not to stay.

It made so much sense. She’d dreamed up the medic’s appeal in order to avoid saying her final goodbye.

That avoidance would disappoint her father, she knew. He wouldn’t want her clinging to sadness through emails that were never answered and commitments she eluded. He’d made arrangements for her to spend this month at Beach House No. 9—alongside the man with whom he’d spent his final moments—and that’s what she should do. What she would do, she decided, hauling in a long, deliberate breath.

No over-the-top and surely imaginary sexual attraction would scare her away.

She took in more air, then turned to Vance. He was staring out to sea and she didn’t give herself a moment to appreciate his handsome profile. “I’m staying,” she said. It would mean Uncle Phil couldn’t embark on his trip for a few more weeks, but she knew he’d understand.

Instead of moving his body, Vance shot her a sidelong glance. “I thought we’d decided.”

Layla stepped close, her voice going fierce. “We didn’t decide.”

He turned to look at her now. “Layla—” he started, shaking his head.

“Doesn’t keeping your word mean anything?”

At that, he stilled, his gaze dropping to the sand. She could tell he was warring with himself, but she didn’t care what the fight was about as long as the battle ended her way. She took another step, getting right in his face. “You promised.”

His eyes jumped to hers, their blue hot and bright. A moment passed. “I did, and that’s important,” he finally said, a muscle ticking in his jaw. “All right. Okay.”

“Okay?” A ray of sunshine seemed to brighten her bereaved heart. She smiled, even as another mortifying tear blinked from her eye. When she reached to wipe it away, her fingers tangled with Vance’s, which were bent on the same mission. They both froze this time, and the drop was left to roll down her cheek and off her chin.

Feeling awkward and awful all over again, Layla broke away from him. “I...I’ll go get my things,” she said, hurrying away as she mentally composed yet another undeliverable email. Dear Dad, I hope I haven’t just made a huge mistake....

* * *

LAYLA WAS MISSING WHEN Vance emerged from his bedroom the next morning. She’d moved her stuff into the beach house the day before as the sun began to set and he’d left her to it when she assured him she didn’t need his help. His dinner offer had been waved away, too, so he’d wandered down the beach for another meal at Captain Crow’s.

When he’d returned, the door to the bedroom she’d selected had been shut. He’d been relieved, of course, and not alarmed.

But now, with dawn coloring the sky the pearly gray-pink of the inside of an abalone shell, worry niggled at him. Her bedroom door was ajar but she wasn’t inside. The pristine kitchen testified she’d not even made a cup of coffee.

Addy wasn’t any help. He trudged upstairs and knocked on her door, but she clearly wasn’t a morning person and was just as clear that she had no idea where to find Layla.

Where the hell had she gone? And why the hell hadn’t he been able to quash the deal yesterday? Not only had he found himself keeping to the plan of a month with her at Crescent Cove, he’d even assured Big Brown Bambi Eyes that “things will be all right.” As if that would happen when he couldn’t even keep tabs on the woman!

Christ. He had to steer clear of this promise business.

After fumbling through the brewing of a carafe of coffee, he managed to down a cup and then headed toward the beach. The briny air dampened the denim of his jeans, and his leather flip-flops kicked up a trail of cold sand behind him. Everyone else in the cove appeared to be asleep except for himself...and Layla, wherever she was.

He walked northward, trying to tamp down his concern even though he’d noted her car was parked in the driveway and her clothes still hung in the bedroom closet. Frustrated, he made to shove his hand through his short hair and cursed when his cast clunked against his skull, knocking some sense into him.

“I’m an idiot,” he told the clutch of sandpipers playing a version of Red Rover with the surf line. They didn’t look up. “She’ll be at the bakery truck.”

He’d assure himself of that, he decided. Get a glimpse of her, then return to No. 9 without giving away he’d been worried.

She was all grown up, wasn’t she?

Dammit.

It was the aroma that reached him first. Even before his soles hit the parking lot’s blacktop, he breathed in something sweet and delicious. His mouth watered and, though that could have been enough to confirm Layla’s whereabouts, he continued toward the food truck parked by the highway, lured like the Big Bad Wolf after Little Red’s basket of Grandma goodies.

Just a quick peek, he told himself, and then he’d hightail it home.

Swirls of pink-and-green paint in a paisley design covered the surface of the vehicle and Karma Cupcakes was blazoned in black letters that appeared vaguely Sanskrit in style. It should have been advance notice, he supposed, but he still started when a spare figure appeared from around the side of the truck. “Namaste,” the man said, pressing his palms together and giving Vance a shallow bow.

“Yeah,” Vance answered. “Uncle Phil, I presume?”

The man wore baggy cargo shorts, a Che Guevara T-shirt and a puka shell necklace. Cocking his head, he grinned, then came forward with fingers outstretched. “You must be Layla’s Vance.”

“No!” Jesus, he wasn’t Layla’s anything. “I mean, uh, I am Vance Smith.” The hand-to-brace shake over, Vance stepped back. “But I was just leaving—”

“Not without a conversation first,” Phil said, still smiling. “It comes with coffee and cupcakes.”

Hell. What could he do but agree? In seconds he found himself sitting at a small table for two positioned on the asphalt, a steaming cup of coffee in front of him as well as a paper plate filled with a selection of unfrosted bite-size treats. Their smell said oven-fresh.

“You don’t play fair, Phil,” he muttered as the other man sat down.

“What’s that?”

“I...” His words trailed off as the food truck’s order window slid open.

Layla leaned out. Her face was flushed—by an oven maybe?—and she wore a pink-and-green paisley kerchief over her hair. “Uncle Phil,” she began, but then her voice died, too, as she caught sight of Vance.

She frowned, her gaze shifting under those luxurious mink lashes. “Uncle Phil,” she said, a warning in her voice.

“We’re only eating cupcakes,” her relative answered, all innocence.

She blew out a breath from her bottom lip, stirring the fringe of bangs that skimmed her eyebrows. “I’m concerned he’s uncovered a latent meddling streak,” she cautioned Vance. “Don’t let him give you the third degree.” Then she disappeared.

Layla gone was good. Much of the problem when it came to her was that Vance’s mind muddied in her proximity, those tender brown eyes and pretty mouth just too diverting. Per usual, after a brief delay, his stalled brain reengaged. He’s uncovered a latent meddling streak.

It was his turn to glare at the older man. “You should have meddled a little harder. What were you thinking? I could have been some freak! You set up your ten-year-old niece—”

“But she’s not ten,” Phil pointed out. “I didn’t realize you thought so.”

“I told you in the emails I was going to hire a nanny.”

The older man shrugged. “Whoops. Sometimes the particulars pass me by.”

Vance ground his back teeth, not sure if Layla’s uncle was really that clueless or just playing the part. “Phil—”

“Anyway, I knew you were a friend of my brother’s.”

That overstated the case. “I—”

“Clearly he trusted you.”

Shit. “Maybe he shouldn’t have,” Vance muttered.

Phil pushed the plate of cupcakes closer. “What makes you say that?”

Instead of answering, Vance selected a cake that was pale blond on the sides and golden on top. Vanilla, he figured, popping it into his mouth. But when it melted on his tongue it offered up a surprising wealth of flavor. Warm milk and brown sugar, he decided, and the luscious taste left him speechless.

“On the menu board it’s Dharma Dulce—a dulce de leche cupcake,” Phil said in response to his unspoken question. “And for the record, I didn’t agree to let her spend a month with just anyone. I have my ways of discovering the truth.”

Vance grunted, unwilling to open his mouth and lose any of the sweet taste still lingering on his tongue.

Phil sat back in his chair. “At twenty-three, you dropped out of college and joined the army. Spent four years as a combat medic, then you were out for a couple before being called back to active duty through the Individual Ready Reserve. You were in Afghanistan for seven months when you were injured in the process of saving my brother.”

Now Vance was forced to speak. “Didn’t save him,” he corrected, though hell, it was painful to say the words aloud.

“No one could expect—”

“I expected!” Startled by his own outburst, Vance looked away, staring off across the parking lot. “Look, it’s...”

“It’s...?”

Vance shook his head. “I had a good run all those years, okay? I never lost anyone on the battlefield.”

“Is that right?”

Yes, it was true. “Every time I reached a fallen man I told him the same thing. I’d say, ‘I’m going to get you out of here, soldier. I’m going to get you to the best doctors and nurses we have available.’”

“And you did?”

“Every time,” Vance said. “That’s not to say I didn’t see death while racing to the wounded. And there were guys I patched up and got onto the choppers who didn’t make it out of the hospital alive. But I...I fulfilled my battlefield vow to all of them.”

Phil regarded him pensively. “All of them?”

“Except one,” Vance answered, closing his eyes. A small sound had them flying open again. His gaze found Layla. She was standing in the open doorway of the truck, a hand over her mouth, her brown eyes wide. Their expression transported him to the day before, to that moment when she’d passed him the errant pen and his fingers had found hers.

He held himself rigid, remembering the jolt of heat, that blast of purely physical sensation that had dried his mouth and dizzied his head. Even under its influence he’d known the reaction was trouble. The last thing he needed was some unwelcome and hard-to-control chemical combustion.

He’d been wild in his younger days, acting on impulse and always riding an edge of danger, but years at war had finally leeched that from him. Plenty of soldiers came back from combat with adrenaline still flooding their system and no place for it to go. Those were the guys who operated at the whim of their cocks instead of their common sense, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to be one of them.

Because he was smarter than that now.

And because he’d made promises. Though the colonel’s daughter deserved more than a horny bastard who’d do better waiting out his return to service by tossing back beers on a Mexican beach than by babysitting an enticing woman he couldn’t in good conscience touch.

He probably scowled, because Layla made another little sound and then disappeared inside the cupcake truck.

“Shit,” he said. “I wish she hadn’t heard that.”

Phil appeared unconcerned. “Now she understands you have your own reasons for being here.” He nudged the plate of cupcakes closer. “Try the one we call Berry Bliss.”

Strawberry? Raspberry? Cherry? His taste buds couldn’t pinpoint the exact flavor. But it definitely tasted like bliss.

“So,” Phil said, “I understand you have family in California?”

Oh, yeah, Vance thought, nodding as he swallowed the cake. Layla’s uncle was cannier than he initially let on. Because Vance did have a family, one with tighter connections than many, because his father and his uncle had married twins and lived in side-by-side houses on a compound at their sprawling avocado ranch about an hour from Crescent Cove. William and Roy Smith continued to lead the business together, with Vance’s older brother, Fucking Perfect Fitz, and their cousin Baxter being groomed to take over.

Thinking of all that made him scowl again, as old bitterness mixed with new disquiet. Bax was sworn to secrecy, but it worried Vance that he might not be able to keep his return to the area quiet. He was determined to avoid a face-to-face with any other members of his family, including his mother.

That brought on a new thought and he shifted his gaze toward the other man. “Phil, where’s Layla’s mom? Her father implied he was divorced, but his ex—”

“Is in the wind. She left her marriage and her daughter behind when Layla was two. My niece has only me now,” Phil said. “And for the next month, you.”

“Me?” She sure as hell didn’t “have” him.

Then Vance thought of finding her on the beach yesterday afternoon, how the instant she’d known she was being observed she’d brushed away the telltale tear. The save-face gesture had found some soft spot inside him. Then she’d said, Doesn’t keeping your word mean anything? and the question had burrowed deeper.

But the truth was, she’d gotten under his skin from the moment he’d turned his head at the restaurant and glimpsed that stunner of a face. It didn’t bode well, not when he’d been sure his years of rash impulses and hasty reactions were well behind him.

“Things will turn out all right,” Phil said.

Vance shot him a look. That had been his line yesterday, and he still regretted it.

“You won’t let her get hurt.”

What could he say to that? Of course, he couldn’t deny it. It was never his intention to hurt her, and the truth was, his final promise to her father had been—

“As a matter of fact,” Phil went on, “you might just make her happy.”

Good God, Vance thought, his chair legs scraping against asphalt as instinct sent him into full retreat. He wouldn’t be trapped into giving his word on that. Make Layla happy?

He was the Smith family’s black sheep. He’d never been able to do that for anybody.