Bungalow Nights
Author:Christie Ridgway

chapter FIVE



“THE SANTA MONICA Pier?” Layla asked.

“It’s the closest Ferris wheel,” Vance replied. “Number one on your dad’s Helmet List.” Without glancing at her, he pulled his Jeep into a spot in the parking lot across the street from the famous landmark that included restaurants, shops and a designated fun zone built on a wide, pillar-supported platform extending into the Pacific Ocean.

That was his strategy. Not to look at her too long, talk to her too much or even breathe too deeply of her sweet perfume.

He’d hit upon it last night, when they’d settled in to watch a baseball game together. Hyperaware of her every move, he’d finally closed his eyes and willed himself into sleep. It was an ability soldiers developed, and he’d been grateful for it, though it had been a near thing when he’d awoken to find her leaning over him, her hand on his shoulder, the ends of her hair tickling his forehead. For a critical fifteen seconds he’d struggled against dragging her down to the couch, his libido clamoring for action.

He’d resisted then; he’d resist her now. The important thing to focus on was ticking off entries on the Helmet List, and that made the Ferris wheel poised at the end of the pier their destination.

And not looking at her too long, talking to her too much or breathing too deep in her presence his policy. It required maintaining some decided personal space, but even that shouldn’t be overly onerous. They’d beat feet down the three hundred or so yards to the ride at the end of the pier, circle beneath the sun a time or two, then reverse the process and return to Crescent Cove.

No harm, no foul, no inappropriate thoughts or actions.

Avoiding Layla’s perfume didn’t appear to be a problem—as they crossed beneath the arched entrance, they entered an olfactory atmosphere that was a heady combination of sunscreen chemicals, fruity sno-cone syrup and salty sea air. But that cacophony of scents also heralded the fact that they weren’t the only people in Southern California who’d decided on a visit today, and the throng of bodies streaming onto the pier almost immediately carried his companion away from him. Helpless to stop the outgoing tide of humanity, Vance caught a glimpse of her wide eyes as she glanced around for him.

With a groan, he surged into the crowd after her, his gaze following the top of her head, but he lost even that when a pair of rollerbladers cut across his path. Forced to a halt, he turned in a circle, searching for the lacy camisole she wore with a denim skirt. Damn. It was stupid to feel panicked, but a shot of sick worry coursed through him, anyway.

What the hell had Colonel Parker done, putting Vance in charge of his darling daughter? He’d been “that rowdy and reckless Smith boy” from the age of four onward, and even though he’d grown out of most of that behavior—finally—Blythe’s defection had made it clear he still wasn’t responsible enough for any kind of commitment.

Hell, he obviously couldn’t hold on to a woman for fifteen minutes! With quick strides, he made his way to the wall beside the entrance to a small shop. Plastering his back to it, he peered down the long crowded walkway, trying to catch sight of Layla again.

Then he felt a hand pinch the sleeve of his T-shirt and yank him around, into the little store. It was littler than little, almost a closet, and filled with decals, keychains, cheap sunglasses and the woman he sought.

“There you are.” Layla was laughing softly, her voice breathless. “I thought I’d lost you.”

Annoyed by how relieved he felt, Vance grabbed up the darkest-of-dark lenses he could find, slipping them on his face to obscure her loveliness. Then he reached into his back pocket for his wallet and forked over five bucks to the clerk on the other side of a glass case that held Disney watches. Fakes, most likely. “You’re the one who wandered off,” he groused. He’d bet his bad temper showed on his face. “You need to stay in sight.”

He could feel her roll her eyes. “Sorry, Grandpa Vance. But I promise to find a nice policeman or another adult I can trust if we get separated again.”

“That’s not gonna happen.” With that, he took a firm grip on her hand and towed her back out into the sunshine.

“Hey,” she protested, her fingers wiggling like fish on a line, but even with the clumsy bulk of the wrist brace impeding his grip, he didn’t let go.

“Come on,” he said, tugging her into the mass of visitors.

With the two of them attached, though, they made less progress than before. The swarm of people was just that hard to navigate, or maybe it was Layla, who seemed to hang back even as he tried to move forward. He glanced down at her, noting the sudden faraway look on her face. Was there a problem?

Then it hit him. She had to be missing her dad. This was something she was supposed to be doing with him, after all. Vance couldn’t blame her for finding him a poor substitute.

He leaned nearer, close enough for the scent of Layla to reach him. It was her shampoo, he decided, as the wind stirred her hair and a lock of it caught in the bristle of whiskers on his unshaven cheek. He brushed it away with his free hand, the silky strands caressing the inner surfaces between two of his fingers. “Is everything okay?”

Pausing, she glanced up. Their faces were close, her mouth near enough to kiss. “Vance, I...” She shook her head. “I’m fine.”

Of course she wasn’t. Her head turned away from his again and he saw she was staring at a boardwalk game, one of those carnival contests that gave you three chances to win for a dollar. He didn’t think she was actually seeing it, but an idea came, anyway. “Hey,” he said. “Would you like to try that?” He’d planned to hustle her down to the wheel ride, but now that seemed the wrong move. “You could win a stuffed animal.”

She slid him a look. “I already have a teddy bear.”

“You could win me a stuffed animal.” He squeezed her hand. “They’ve got Garfield the cat. My favorite.”

Before she could reply, he was steering her toward the booth. Money changed hands and the old guy running the game passed over three baseballs to Layla. Her expression bemused, she focused on the targets, three neon-painted cartoon figures just waiting to be knocked down. “You really want a Garfield?” she asked. “Because I’m pretty sure it’s going to cost you.”

Vance could see a little smile quivering at the corners of her lips. “Positive,” he said. He positively wanted to see that smile let loose, no matter what the price.

It took twenty-two dollars and the mercy of the game operator. By the time she finally clutched her prize, that grin he’d been after came with a touch of more-fool-you. “We could have bought one of these for half that much at the toy store,” she said, presenting the orange feline to him.

“Wouldn’t be the same,” he said, tucking it under one arm and reclaiming her hand. “Because this guy comes with the indelible knowledge that you have the throwing arm of a girl.”

She punched him in the shoulder as they headed down the pier again.

“You do that like a girl, too,” he said. “When you hit somebody you should curl your thumb over your fingers, not put it inside your fist.”

“Really?” She blinked. “I never knew that.”

“That’s why boys are so much better than girls.” He smiled at her little harumph and lowered his voice to murmur in her ear. “Stick with me, baby, I’ll teach you everything you’ve yet to learn.”

Her feet stumbled. Her gaze jerked toward his.

Just like that, the crowds evaporated. The sun seemed to shine on Layla like a beacon, burnishing the rich brown of her hair, adding a glow to the smooth curve of her naked shoulders. There was a flush on her cheeks and her mouth glistened when her tongue wet her top lip, then the bottom one.

Hell, Vance thought, a surge of lust coursing through him. It wrapped around his balls like a caress. His cock went heavy, then hard, and all he could think of was sex. Sex with Layla.

“Let’s go back to the car,” he murmured. There he could get his hands on her, run his fingertips against her throat, lick the slope of that golden shoulder, press his face between her breasts. His gaze flicked down to them and he saw the tight buds of her nipples pressing through her bra and the thin cotton of her top.

His belly tightened as he imagined turning his cheek and taking a nipple into his mouth, wetting the material with his tongue as he sucked it inside. “The car,” he said again, his voice low and tight. “We could be there in ten minutes.”

Her eyes widened. “And skip the Ferris wheel?”

The Ferris wheel? Oh, hell. The Ferris wheel. He was supposed to be playing Boy Scout and fulfilling a promise, not letting his imagination and his sex drive run wild.

Cursing himself, he dropped her hand like a hot potato and resumed striding onward, reminding himself of his earlier strategy. Resist her, dammit. And don’t look at her too long, talk to her too much, or breathe too deeply in her presence.

And for God’s sake, no touching!

Without glancing right or left, he led the way to the attraction at the west end of the pier. It had been the backdrop in movies and TV shows and maybe that added to its appeal. For whatever reason, the line was a zigzagger, one that would take some time and patience to get through. Resigned to it, Vance planted his feet behind the last group in the queue and prepared to endure.

“I guess it’s going to be a wait,” Layla said.

Vance grunted, keeping his gaze on the blue crown of the Dodgers baseball cap the guy in front of him was wearing. It was safer to pretend she wasn’t even there.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

The question instantly made him feel like an ass. It wasn’t her fault that he was horny and she was lovely. He shoved his hand through his hair, welcoming the clunk of his cast against his forehead. The small pain was not even close to what he deserved. “I’m fine,” he said, finally glancing over at her.

She was looking up at him with those big eyes of hers, puzzlement putting a crease between her brows. “Then what’s the problem?”

He wanted to bash his head all over again. Instead, he signaled to a vendor walking past and without asking first, bought her a paper cone topped with pink candy the height and consistency of a 1950s beehive hairdo. “Here,” he said, thrusting it at her. If she had something to eat she wouldn’t have a chance to question him further. He wouldn’t have to search for some half-baked answer to explain his mood.

Of course, fate was still conspiring against him. He supposed he could have bought a worse item for her to consume—a corn dog maybe?—but watching her pluck pieces of spun sugar from the cone and slide them into her mouth wasn’t soothing his lust any. After waving off an offer to share, he went back to staring at the Dodgers cap and shuffling his feet forward as the line moved ahead.

He was doing damn well with his not looking/not speaking/not breathing policy and then it was their turn to step into a rocking bucket. Vance climbed in first, then he glanced over as Layla lifted her foot...and froze. Her stricken gaze jerked to his face.

Uh-oh. “What’s the matter?”

“I...” She swallowed, hard.

The attendant steadying their seat spoke with the tone of experience. “Ferris fear,” he announced. “Strikes all kinds, all ages. You can exit over there,” he added, pointing with a finger.

Layla stared at Vance, her head shaking back and forth. “I have to do this.”

“Of course you don’t,” he assured her, starting to rise.

“I have to do this.” Though her face was pale and now her gaze was trained over his shoulder.

Vance glanced back and saw that the view—which gave the impression they were suspended over the ocean—wasn’t helping her any. “Layla—”

“Please, Vance. It’s on the list. Dad’s Helmet List.”

He couldn’t resist the plea. “All right, all right.” He slid down the molded plastic seat and reached for her hand. “Look at me. Now take a step inside. I won’t let go.”

She landed beside him with a gentle plop that sent the bucket swaying. Her free hand clutched his thigh.

“Look at me,” he directed, angling her chin so her big brown eyes didn’t leave his face. “Just keep looking at me.”

“Okay,” she said, and a little tremor ran through her.

He brushed at the bangs that were tangling with her long eyelashes. “You’re afraid of heights?”

She made a face, both sets of fingers still clinging to him. “I don’t know. Maybe so. Or maybe it’s just like the man said, Ferris fear. This is my first ride on one.” Her breath caught as their bucket moved upward in order to let other people into the next on the line.

Over Layla’s shoulder, the view was incredible as the ride continued to slowly revolve and the buckets were filled. The Pacific was far below them, boats gliding across its surface, leaving white trails on the glassy water. Antlike people crawled across the sand of Santa Monica Beach, some of them playing in the lacy edges of the waves. Vance didn’t dare direct her attention to any of it.

Instead, he slung an arm around her shoulders and didn’t flinch when she nestled closer to his chest. She was cool to the touch, and he let her snuggle close, noting that her long lashes were squeezed tightly together.

“Do you know why they call this a Ferris wheel?” he asked.

Her head moved in a short, negative shake.

“It was named after the designer, one George W. Ferris, who came up with the idea for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The organizers wanted an attraction to rival the Eiffel Tower, which had wowed visitors in Paris four years before. The ride is based on the waterwheel he remembered watching move in the river near his childhood home. He completed it in four months’ time and with some of his own money because no one had any faith in him.”

Vance knew how that felt, didn’t he? No wonder he’d always held a soft spot for ol’ George, whose wife had ultimately left him and who had died penniless.

He glanced down. Layla’s eyes were open now, but again fixed on his face. “How do you know all that?”

“Report in the sixth grade.” With his forefinger, he tapped his temple. “The facts never left me. Best grade I ever got on anything until I joined the army, though I never told my folks a thing about it.”

Layla frowned. “Why not?”

He shrugged. “Fucking Perfect Fitz had the honor roll role already sewn up.”

“Who?”

“That would be my older brother. Never a hair out of place, a grade less than A, the slightest smudge on his permanent record.”

“A big brother?” She sighed a little. “I always wanted one of those.” Then the wheel lurched into motion again, but instead of stopping shortly, it became a smooth revolution that took them even higher.

Layla made a little squeak and burrowed closer, her face turning into him, her mouth touching the side of his throat.

Vance sucked in a breath, trying to ignore the almost-kiss. “How about I be a big brother to you then, during this next month,” he proposed, keeping his voice light. “I’ll teach you how to throw, how to punch, how to survive your fears.”

Of course, he didn’t feel like any kind of brother to Layla at all. And damn, she felt good in his arms, despite the contact being everything he’d tried to avoid. He felt good, period, he decided with some surprise. Until now, the month had struck him as an obligation, not the least like his own vacation. Huh.

Propping his chin on the top of her head, he allowed himself, for a few minutes, anyway, to just enjoy the ride.

* * *

AS THE SUN SANK TOWARD THE horizon, Baxter climbed the steps from the beach onto the open-air deck of Captain Crow’s, his gaze sweeping the space. Looking for Addy.

He’d tried releasing his guilt. He’d tried to tell himself he could let the past go, that his effort at talking to her two days before was enough to clear it from his conscience.

But he couldn’t stop thinking about the fluffy-haired female—and it was affecting his work.

All Business Baxter couldn’t have that.

So he’d called Vance, and he’d not even begun to fish for the woman’s whereabouts before his cousin had extended an invitation to spend the Fourth of July evening at the beach house. Baxter had quickly accepted.

Not that he’d intended to stay for long. No, he headed to Crescent Cove with the purpose of getting Addy alone and once and for all addressing what had been said and done—and then ignored—That Night all those years ago.

But upon arrival at No. 9, he’d learned the woman he sought was meeting some friends for drinks at the restaurant on the sand. Waiting for her return smacked of stalling, so he’d taken himself up the beach. Once he spotted her, he’d pull her aside and spit out the apology that had to be made.

His gaze caught on Addy’s bright hair. Then he took in the fact that she already had male companionship. Surrounding her at a table were four guys in scruffy-casual: cargo shorts, T-shirts and beat-up running shoes. Baxter didn’t allow himself to feel overdressed, even though his khakis and sports shirt were pressed. So what that his leather sandals were Ferragamo?

The soles of them were silent as he came up behind her. The fivesome didn’t notice him as they passed around a pitcher of beer and continued their discussion. The topic of the moment was Sunrise Pictures, what Addy had discovered so far about it, how much material there was for her to sift through.

One of the men leaned close to her, his narrow fingers wrapping around her glass to top off the beer. “Sign of the jeweled collar?” he asked. His neck was skinny and his complexion pale, made sallower by the contrast to his faded black T-shirt.

Addy shook her head. “It could just be old Hollywood gossip, you know.”

“It’s gotta be,” another of the group concurred. “Priceless treasure still undiscovered after all these years? Not a chance.”

“You should let me help you look for it,” Skinny Neck said, scooting his chair closer to Addy’s. “I have some free time. I could be here every day.” He put his hand on her arm.

The gesture made Baxter move forward. “Addison,” he said.

Her head whipped around and she turned in her chair, causing the man to release his hold on her. “Baxter!” She said it with such enthusiasm he couldn’t help but suppose she didn’t like Skinny’s touch.

Baxter didn’t like it, either.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

He yanked a free chair from an adjacent table and insinuated it between her and the guy in the black T-shirt. The other man didn’t move an inch, but Addy obligingly shifted her chair to give Baxter room. “Do you mind if I join you?” he asked, when it was already done. He smiled genially about the table. “I’ll buy the next pitcher.”

He’d learned a thing or two about managing people over the years. Ask for permission after the deed was already done. Never overlook the opportunity to buy a round of drinks for your friends...or enemies.

Holding out his hand toward Skinny, he gave him a full-wattage Smith smile. “Baxter. Addy and I go way back.”

Introductions garnered him the knowledge that the others at the table hadn’t known her nearly as long. They were fellow students from her undergrad years, and all seemed to still hold a passion for film. Two worked in the industry, one was in law school, Skinny put in part-time hours as a barista while monitoring a chat room dedicated to all things movie.

And he was itching to get into that small archives room with Addison.

“Listen, Addy, I’m serious about the offer,” he said, after the waitress delivered the pitcher of brew that Baxter had ordered. “I got the time, you got the access.” He leaned over the table to send her a smile that was close to a leer. “We could have some fun.”

Baxter glanced at Addy, then went with his instincts. “I don’t think so,” he told the guy.

“Huh?” Skinny frowned at him.

Sliding an arm around Addy’s shoulders, he tugged her closer to his body. “Let me explain...”

What could he possibly say? Six years ago they’d had one intense night together when, for some reason he still couldn’t explain to himself, he’d gone off the BSLS. He was only here now to apologize for what he’d said then and what he hadn’t done afterward. Once that was over they were never going to see each other again.

“Fine,” the man said, as Baxter hesitated. “I get it. You’re bumping boots with Ad. That doesn’t mean I can’t help her out with her research.”

“Bumping boots!” Addy bristled.

Baxter cursed himself. This wasn’t going the way he’d expected. He had no business laying claim to any kind of relationship with her. He was trying to lay the past to rest. Get on with it, Smith. Get it out, then get yourself out.

The pitcher of beer was making the rounds again and under the cover of that Baxter turned to her, sliding his arm from her shoulder so he could take both of her hands in his. They were small and cool and resisted his grip until he tightened his fingers. “Listen,” he said. “I’m...I, uh...”

Crap.

He took a quick breath. “I didn’t mean to insinuate something to your friends.”

Her eyes narrowing, she gave a careless shrug. “Why are you here, Baxter? It can’t be a coincidence. Shouldn’t you be at the office?”

“It’s a holiday.” He actually had been at the office, but she didn’t need to know that. “And it’s after five.” Though he often stayed at his desk beyond 8:00 p.m.

“What do you want?”

He opened his mouth, then shut it, staring as her face started to flush. Or was that merely from the pinkish cast of the lowering sun’s light? In either case, it distracted him, and he chased the color downward, aware for the first time of what she wore. It was a dark blue sundress of a gauzy fabric that bared her shoulders and cupped her breasts.

Nothing good could come from allowing his gaze to linger there, so he jerked it upward, noticing the wire-and-beads headband that was half-hidden by her curling hair. The small seeds of glass were colored red, white and blue.

It was the Fourth of July, he reminded himself, and he was here to claim independence from That Night that had been shadowing him for years, staying tucked behind his shoulder until it was clear no amount of paperwork and meetings and conference calls could keep his brain occupied enough to forget it.

“Look,” he said quickly. “I’m here because we really need to talk. What happened six years ago, what we did, what I said... It should have been resolved differently.” It hadn’t been resolved at all, that was the problem. The things that had come out of his mouth as he held her in his arms... Sweet Lord.

His last words had been the assurance that he’d be calling her and yet he’d never dialed her number, sent an email or even posted on her Facebook wall. He didn’t even know if she had an account.

“Will you accept my apology?” he asked.

She blinked, those green eyes of hers expressing...what? Christ, he couldn’t read her. Six years ago she’d been an open book.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Addy said.

“I...uh, what?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she repeated. Her brows came together and she looked perplexed. “Six years ago? We did? You said? It doesn’t ring any bells.”

Baxter may have been gaping at her. She didn’t recall? She didn’t remember That Night? Okay, she’d had one beer, but he didn’t think she’d been drunk.

Not drunk enough to forget being with him.

To forget he’d taken her virginity. And what he’d said after the fact.

As he tried to wrap his mind around her apparent forgetfulness, she turned away from him to respond to one of her college pals. Banter circled the table as they told old stories, brought up shared classes, dissed clueless professors.

Rocked by the revelation that what had eaten at him for six years apparently didn’t rate a single memory in her brain’s filing cabinet, Baxter sat frozen. After a few minutes he reached into his pocket for his smartphone, but even calling up his email and checking for voice messages didn’t shore him up.

Work always shored him up. Routine. Sticking to the BSLS.

He only tuned back into the conversation when Skinny Neck spoke up again. He leaned around Baxter to address Addy. “As I mentioned,” he said, “I can help you with your research. I have a lot of free time.”

Baxter didn’t like the guy on sight and even less now that he wanted to “help” Addy with such insistence. But he steeled himself to stay silent. Heck, if she didn’t remember him from That Night six years ago, he shouldn’t stick his nose into her affairs.

“Well?” Skinny prodded.

“Steve...” Addy hesitated, looking down, then her lashes swept up and her gaze touched Baxter’s face.

He could read her well enough now, he thought. And she was clearly saying, Help.

Before he could even think it through, he had his arm around her again. “She doesn’t need anything from you, Sk—Steve. You see, I’ve already volunteered my services. When Addy needs an extra hand, it’s going to be mine that comes to her aid.”

Then he shined his smile on her, the foundation firm beneath his feet again. If she’d forgotten what they’d been to each other, he now had a reason to be around her to remind her of it.

After that he’d apologize and put That Night to bed.

He winced, not sure if it was because of his mind’s turn of phrase or the sneaking suspicion that his logic held a serious fatal flaw. But her warmth at his side felt too good for him to reason it out now.