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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 palmssweat 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-yearyounger 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 mindhis 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 Marchher 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 bodyeven the ones surrounded by the infernal cast and bracewent 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 hookupseven if one might have coincidentally ventured here, an hour from home environs. As for more recent conquestsuntil 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 crimeokay, he'd been the designated driverwhenever 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 classierand a lot less of a party animalover 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.
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.