Bungalow Nights
Author:Christie Ridgway

chapter THREE



WITH THE BAKING DONE for the day and having waved off Uncle Phil as he embarked on a morning-to-midday route that included stops at two public libraries and two parks popular with the Mommy and Me set, Layla headed back to Beach House No. 9. At the sand, she paused to remove her gladiator-style sandals, then carried them hooked on a finger as she strolled southward.

Unlike the early a.m., she didn’t have the beach to herself. Little kids dug holes near the surf, bigger kids splashed through the shallows, adults lounged on towels or tossed footballs and Frisbees. She ambled, the sun striking the left side of her body, its heat tempered by the cool breeze buffeting her right. The air tasted salty and clean and she took in great gulps of it, letting it refresh her lungs and clear her head.

For fifteen minutes she was lost in the sensations of sun, sand and surf. Then Beach House No. 9 came into clear view, its windows thrown open to the breeze, a red, white and blue kite attached to a fishing pole on the second-floor balcony spinning in circles, and on the beachside deck below, the figure of a man stretched on a lounge chair in the shade of a market umbrella.

Vance Smith, denim-covered legs crossed at the ankles. What looked to be a classic pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses concealing his eyes. Nothing covering his chest.

Layla’s feet came to a sudden stop. Oh.

Oh, wow.

Maybe it was the cast and the brace, she thought. They drew attention to his heavy biceps and the tanned, rugged contours of his shoulders and chest. She knew the amount of gear combat soldiers regularly carried on their backs; those muscles of his hadn’t been honed in a gym but had been carved by regularly transporting sixty to a hundred pounds of weaponry and essentials.

Her skin prickled under the soft knit of her cotton sundress. The breeze fluttered the hem, tickling the backs of her knees and making her hyperaware of her sensitivity there. Dismayed, she told herself to blink, to move, to do something, but she was powerless against her reaction. He’d bewitched her, and her body was struck still by the powerful sexual response she’d told herself yesterday was nothing more than her psyche’s excuse—and not at all real.

Wrong.

“Watch out!” a voice called from behind her, but her preoccupation inhibited her reaction time. A body bumped Layla’s, knocking her forward two unsteady steps.

“Sorry, sorry,” a woman said, catching her arm to keep her upright. “The Frisbee toss went long. Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Layla answered. She shot a glance toward the deck, hoping Vance hadn’t witnessed her clumsiness. “It was my fault. My mind was, uh, somewhere else.”

The other woman followed Layla’s gaze, tossing back her hair for a better look. Then she grinned, her white teeth a match for the bikini top she wore above a pair of hip-riding board shorts. “Can’t blame you there. That’s some distracting man candy.”

“Man candy,” Layla echoed.

“He’s a handsome guy,” the other woman said. “No harm in looking, is there?”

No harm in looking. “You’re right.” Layla smiled, her alarm evaporating. There was no harm in looking and nothing particularly unusual about the fact that she wanted to. If Vance caused another woman to do a double take, then Layla’s own response was perfectly normal.

Like admiring a...a pretty butterfly.

She stole another glance at him, taking in the wealth of sunbaked skin. “It’s not just me, right?”

The stranger grinned again. “Hey, I’m here with a posse of firefighters,” she said, turning to fling the Frisbee down the beach, “and your guy caught my eye.”

Layla diverted her attention to the handful of young men pushing each other aside in order to retrieve the plastic disc. Weren’t they photo spread–worthy as well with their bright swim trunks and athletic builds?

“Man candy, too,” Layla pronounced, and with a farewell wave, turned toward the beach house, a new lightness in her step. Any woman alive would experience a little quickening of the blood. It was nothing uncivilized, nothing to be anxious about, and now that she’d indulged in her short session of Vance-gawking, she was even over admiring him.

The man in question sat up, pushing his sunglasses to the top of his head as she mounted the steps from the sand. She gave him her best bright smile. “Hey!”

His eyes narrowed. “You’re cheery.”

“I’m a morning person,” she confessed. Not to mention that she’d defeated her apprehension. Thousands upon thousands of attractive men populated the world, dozens of them on this very beach even, and there wasn’t anything special about her brief fascination with this particular one’s appearance.

Everybody liked butterflies.

He frowned. “Butterflies?”

Oops. Had she said that out loud? “Sorry, I do that sometimes. Talk to myself when I’m, uh, developing recipes.”

“Butterflies?” he asked again, more skeptical.

“Or buttermilk.” She waved a hand. Then, because he still radiated suspicion, she perched one hip on the cushion at the level of his knees, all casual friendliness. Looking him straight in the eye, she smiled. “So...how do you like my cupcakes?”

His face went strangely still. It gave her a moment to study him, though from the very first she’d tried to avoid a detailed examination. Even while being dispassionate about the whole thing—as she insisted to herself she was—his looks were striking. His dark blond hair was thick and sun-lightened a brighter caramel around the edges. He had strong cheekbones and jawline, with straight, sandy-colored brows over summer-sky eyes. The face was saved from pretty by the firmness of his mouth and the strong column of his neck. Those tough-guy shoulders dispatched the last of any spoiled playboy impression left by the golden hair and angel eyes.

Weird, how her heart was racing again.

“Your cupcakes?” Vance cleared his throat, and just for a second, his gaze flicked to a spot below her neck, before quickly jerking up again. “I like your cupcakes just fine.”

Oh, jeez. She felt the skin between her collarbone and modest décolletage go hot. Her “cupcakes” tingled inside the cups of her bra. Why hadn’t she used a more innocuous phrase like baked goods? she thought, burning with mortification. “Um—”

“Oh, hell,” he said quickly. “I apologize. Forget I said that. Forget I looked... Just for a second my brain went stupid.”

It was the first time, she realized, she’d seen him disconcerted. Even when she’d shown up at the restaurant, unexpectedly adult, his cool demeanor hadn’t broken. It was an army thing maybe, because her dad had been like that, so good at projecting chill one could suppose he had an ice tray in his chest where a heart should be.

“It’s all right,” she murmured, willing the warmth on her cheeks to fade.

“It’s not.” He shook his head. “It’s... Call it combat-conditioning. Before coming back to the States I lived in the crudest of circumstances with a bunch of guys who could make me blush.”

“I get it. It’s okay.”

“Nah.” A sheepish grin quirked his lips. “It’s not.”

It was the grin. That sheepish grin. Her skin flushed hot all over again as she felt her pulse start to pound at the tender skin of her wrists and at those sensitive hollows behind her knees. She could only stare at him and the lingering rueful smile on his face.

Vance didn’t seem to notice. “What can I do to make it up to you?” He reached out and casually touched her hand.

He shouldn’t do that, she thought, unable to move. Something was going on here, a situation she didn’t have control over, and she’d never wanted to believe this kind of thing would happen. You couldn’t choose? Without your permission this...this fever overcame you, or rather, reached out to you, or rather, exploded all around you...and you were at its mercy. Layla began to tremble.

His long fingers curled over hers. The edge of his cast pressed into her skin but she barely registered it over the hot-cold shiver that shot toward her elbow. “Vance...”

“I’m sorry,” he was saying, his voice light. “I’m a bad man.”

And then her hand slipped from his to press his cheek. Why? Because he wasn’t a bad man, that was certain. There was a slight bristle against her palm, gritty, masculine, and the sensation pinballed more tingles to her toes and then to the top of her head. She didn’t move. She just held her soft flesh against the hard plane of his cheek.

Their gazes met.

She didn’t try to read anything into his because his expression had shut down and she wished she didn’t feel this way. Knowing what was going on in Vance’s mind didn’t seem like any kind of win for Layla. “Hey...” she finally said. Her voice was so hoarse she had to stop and lubricate her throat. “Um.”

“Yeah?”

Her hand slid away from his face. She saw his cheek muscle jump. “I have an idea.” She swallowed again. “A good idea.”

“Oh?”

She stood, jolting upward so fast she swayed a little. He reached to steady her, but didn’t make contact. Good. “We’re here for the month. My father wanted that. But we don’t have to...to...be in each other’s pockets.”

His gaze was so blue it should have steadied her.

But it was only more heat, not a cool, calm blue at all anymore. “Layla—”

“We’ll live in the same house, but there’s plenty of room. We’ll go our separate ways. Live, uh, totally separate lives.”

Now he touched her. The back of his fingers skimmed the flesh of her forearm. She felt it to the marrow. “No,” he said. “We can’t do that. If we’ve come this far, we’ve got to do it right. Because I made another promise, too.”

* * *

VANCE CURSED HIMSELF for the wary look on Layla’s face. What the hell was wrong with him? He knew damn well her father wouldn’t approve of him messing up the agenda he’d laid out with this man-woman complication. The colonel had still considered his daughter a little girl, and Vance should be seeing her as the same.

Except she’d been sitting so close a few minutes before, her womanly hip against the denim of his jeans, her pretty face smiling at him, so that when she’d said “cupcakes” his baser self had reared its prurient head and, well...

Checked out her cupcakes.

He didn’t allow his gaze to stray in that direction again, but his memory worked just fine and yes, she had very nice cupcakes.

As if she could read his mind, she shuffled back a step, and he swung his feet off the lounge and onto the planks of the deck. “Let me explain—”

“Not necessary,” Layla interjected. “Really. I think my ships-in-the-night plan is a good one.”

Vance stifled a sigh. It was all his fault. He should have made an effort to get laid between leaving Afghanistan and moving into the beach house, but it honestly hadn’t occurred to him. Six months had passed since he’d opened Blythe’s Dear John letter, and it had served as an effective sexual appetite suppressant until yesterday. Until he’d caught sight of a certain soft-eyed brunette who just happened to make his mouth water.

“You should hear me out,” he said, keeping his expression harmless and his voice mild.

Layla was already edging toward the house. She touched the handle of the sliding-glass door. “Not—”

Addison slid it open from the inside. “There you are!” she said, stepping onto the deck and effectively pushing Layla toward Vance again. Addy had a yogurt cup in one hand, a spoon sunk inside like the business end of a butter churn. “Our host was looking for you earlier, knocking on my door in the dead of the night.”

“The sun was up,” Vance said, and tried signaling her with his eyes. Go away, Addy.

The message went unheeded. She crossed straight to Vance’s lounge chair and, much as Layla had done minutes before, plopped herself beside him. He could barely remember Addy as a kid, but she was a curvy fairy now, with a fluff of platinum hair ringing her small head and tip-tilted green eyes. Her mouth seemed always ready for a mischievous smile.

Vance gave her a second look. If his libido was reawakened, how about Addy? She smelled like strawberry soap, was sexy in a handle-with-care kind of way, and he’d made no pledges to her papa. Maybe she’d consider a summertime fling....

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Frowning, her green eyes crossed. “Is there something on my nose?”

“Just a sprinkle of freckles,” Vance said, shaking his head. “They’re cute.” But they did nothing for him, he realized, damn his perverse horny urges. Punishing him for his misspent youth, he supposed, through an uninvited and inconvenient fixation on Layla.

As if on cue, the brunette cleared her throat. “I’m glad to have a chance to talk to you, Addy. I have some free time on my hands and I was thinking I could spend some of it helping you with your research.”

Addy halted her spoon midtwirl and looked up. “You’re interested in the silent film era?”

“Uh...I could be.”

Vance decided Layla was more nervous than he thought warranted. He hadn’t been that out of line. One little cupcake comment that he’d followed with a lighthearted apology shouldn’t send her screaming for the books. He narrowed his eyes and saw her throw him a quick nervous glance, her face coloring.

She cleared her throat again. “Tell me some more about what you’re investigating.”

With her spoon, Addy gestured around the cove. “This place was magic in the heyday before the talkies. All the palm trees and tropical vegetation? Trucked in. Coastal California hillsides are normally sage scrub and manzanita. Thanks to the creek running through here, though, everything from the banana plants to hibiscus bushes took hold. Et voilà, a South Seas atoll for pirate stories, a rainforest for cannibal movies and, in one particularly famous case, Cleopatra’s ancient Egypt.”

Obviously Addy was enthused by her subject. Using her spoon again, she pointed down the beach. “There’s a small room attached to the art gallery beside Captain Crow’s that’s an archive for business papers and memorabilia from Sunrise Pictures—the company that operated out of the cove. I’m the first scholar given access to all of it.”

“Fascinating.” Layla darted another glance at Vance, then her tongue came out to touch that top-heavy upper lip.

Off-limits, he reminded himself. And you’re way past your days of reckless rule-breaking. Even if the rules are of your very own making.

Layla smoothed the skirt of her dress with her palms. “Well, if you could use me, I’m free after my morning baking’s done.” Again, she slid him a look.

Huh, Vance thought, not knowing what to make of the strange vibe he was getting from her. It wasn’t just wary, it was...

“While I’m here, I’d like to keep myself very busy,” she continued. “Very, very busy.” This time she studiously avoided his gaze.

And then he finally got it.

Hell, he thought, surprised by his own thickheadedness. He could probably blame that on Blythe, too—it was only natural to distrust his instincts when it came to women after receiving that letter from her ending with “and I hope this won’t cause any unpleasantness between us.”

But now he couldn’t ignore what his gut was telling him. The lust bug that had bitten him so bad? Looked like it had sunk its teeth into Layla, too. This hot-for-you thing went both ways.

Dammit.

“So what do you say, Addy?” Layla asked. “Can you use my help?”

The other woman shrugged. “If you want, but are you sure you’ll have time with what you and Vance have on the calendar?”

Layla’s blank look said what he didn’t have to. Addy groaned. “Vance hasn’t told you about that yet.” She turned to him. “I’m not normally so stupid, you know. It’s Baxter.”

Vance’s brows rose. “What does my cousin have to do with it?”

Addy jumped to her feet and started muttering. “I saw him yesterday, okay? Well, you know that. It’s just, he... Never mind.”

Still muttering, she stalked back into the house, slamming shut the glass door behind her. Vance and Layla both stared after her, and then he shifted his attention to the colonel’s daughter once more. After a moment of tense silence, she met his gaze.

Her tongue touched her top lip and he worked not to notice it. “Do I want to know about this ‘calendar’?” she asked.

“It’s nothing bad,” he assured her. “And not so time-consuming that you can’t hang with Addy if you want, or just spend time soaking up the summer air.”

Layla stepped a little closer to him, her wariness apparently lifted for the moment. “That sounds nice,” she admitted. “I haven’t taken any days off from cupcakes since we bought the truck.”

“Your dad said you deserved a vacation. He wanted this one for you on the beach.”

She drew closer, her eyes searching his face. “You...There was time? He really had time to talk to you about me?”

“Yeah.” Vance softened his voice. “He wasn’t in physical pain, Layla. I was able to make sure of that.”

He saw her swallow. She stepped closer yet, sank again to the cushion beside him and pushed her hair away from her temples with both hands. Then they dropped to her lap. “What’s this calendar all about?”

Her father’s face flashed in his mind, sweat-streaked and pale, but determined as he fumbled with the precious papers in his headgear.

Isn’t she beautiful, Vance? You’ve got to do something for her. You’ve got to do something for my girl.

He’d sworn he would, and nothing as temporary or as ill-advised as surrendering to his baser urges would get in the way of keeping his word. “Your father gave me a piece of paper he always kept with him—a list of things he wanted the two of you to do together. Things he thought he’d put off for too long.”

“Oh, Dad.” Her thick lashes swept down to hide her eyes. She brought the back of her hand to her nose. “I’m not crying. Tears always upset him—Uncle Phil, too—so I don’t do that.”

She was worming her way under his skin again, this stoic little soldier. Under other circumstances, Vance would have put his hands on her. As a medic, he understood the comfort of human touch. But right now it didn’t seem wise. “I pledged to take his place—to do them with you,” he said.

She slanted him a glance. “And what are they exactly?” she asked, her voice thick.

“A surprise. Are you okay with that?”

Her laugh sounded more sad than amused. “He liked surprises, the goof.”

This time Vance allowed himself to reach out. His fingers caught in her hair and he managed to tuck a piece behind her ear. “He called it his ‘Helmet List,’” Vance said, softly. “And I promised to share it with you.”

As his hand fell, Layla caught it with hers, squeezing. And God, the sexual thrill was there, undeniable, but the buzz that goosed his libido also sent an electrical current toward the center of his chest. It was some kind of weird sorcery. Because the heart he thought Blythe had stomped dead thumped once. Twice. In that instant reanimating, like Frankenstein’s monster bolting upright on the table.