Bungalow Nights - By Christie Ridgway Page 0,1

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 mind—his 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 March—her 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