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
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
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
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
"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
"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.
"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,
"Vance?" a throaty, feminine voice asked. "Vance
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
"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,