Saving the Girl Next Door SAVING THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
"Heroes Inc., Book 3"
Harlequin Intrigue® #713
Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0373227132
Publisher: Harlequin Books
Pub. Date: June 2003

Chapter One

Jack Donovan had a reputation for attaining success—even if it required dive bombing his chopper through a hailstorm of bullets. Today no one was shooting at him, but if he'd known what waited for him down below, he might never have landed.

As an ex-Navy SEAL, Jack had scuba dived five oceans and climbed mountains on four continents. Nevertheless, with his instinctive timing and superb reflexes, he'd been born to fly. For the military he'd flown test aircraft, and for his current employer, the Shey Group, he flew everything from gliders to jets to helicopters.

Blissfully unaware of his fate, Jack couldn't have ordered a better day for flying the chopper. The Florida sky above the Gulf of Mexico shimmered a rich silky blue that was full of promise. With not even a hint of a thundercloud in sight, Jack cruised above Clearwater's sandy shoreline with no more on his mind than his anticipation of an easy landing, then kicking back with an icy brew in a honky tonk bar along the beach where he could watch the sun set over the Gulf.

He sighted his landing field. At one thousand feet above his target, Jack powered down his engines. Man and machine plummeted toward the earth. If he had been in a plane, he'd have had to dive the nose down to pick up enough speed to glide. But in a chopper, he maneuvered his hands and feet to autorotate the rotors, a basic landing maneuver that every pilot practiced in case the engines conked out during a flight.

Without his heart even skipping a beat, Jack lightly touched down and abandoned one dream vehicle for another, his latest acquisition, a new Mercedes coupe. He chose his cars like his women—fast and sleek and ready to run. After striding across the tarmac to his silver convertible which had sat all afternoon in the baking sun, he slid behind the wheel. The leather seat was hot enough to make him wince.

He'd forgotten how extreme a Florida summer could be. Although Jack had grown up in Clearwater, he hadn't been back home in years.

Bad memories over fights with his parents about his wild and reckless teenage years had kept him away. A decade ago, Clearwater hadn't been a big enough town for Jack Donovan. Except for the excesses of Spring Break when college students flocked to the community's tacky souvenir shops and powder sand beaches, the sleepy beachside town full of snowbirds wasn't a happening place.

Jack turned on the radio and AC full blast. As Black Sabbath blared from his speakers, he pressed a button which caused the Mercedes' hardtop to automatically fold into the trunk.

Yes, baby. Wind and sun and surf, here I come.

Years ago, Jack had yearned for Paris, Tahiti and Nepal, and the Navy had given him the means to expand his horizons. He'd since circumnavigated the world by boat and plane more times than he could count. The Navy had also given him the discipline to turn him into a productive citizen.

Now he worked for the Shey Group, a private team of men who charged high fees to take on dangerous missions that no one else would touch. The Shey group allowed him the luxury of this silver coupe with a souped up engine that did zero to sixty in 4.6 seconds. Not to mention his friends, the elite of the elite. Good guys to have at his side in a brawl. Not that Jack anticipated a fight. Not while on vacation.

Whistling, contented, he burned rubber, exiting the private airport. The car handled like the high-priced luxury item that she was, and he headed for the beach.

A cute yellow VW Bug pulled out behind him.

At the next corner, Jack turned right. So did the yellow VW.

He might be on vacation, but Jack's normal observation skills kicked in. That's why he could take so many chances and still have all his body parts—he took calculated risks. Just for the hell of it, he made two right turns and then another left.

The VW Bug stuck to him like a flea.

Dark tinted windows prevented him from ID'ing the driver. But Jack no longer had any doubts that someone was following him. He had several choices. He could go on with his vacation and hope whoever was following him would fade away. Since the VW could never match his speed, he could accelerate and lose the tail. Or he could confront his pursuer and find out what the hell was going on.

Intel first. With a grin of pleasure, Jack pressed his foot down on the accelerator, hard, but not enough to outrun the VW.

The car matched his speed. The other driver was determined, but kept a constant distance between them.

He sped through a green light and headed for the highway. The VW stayed right with him.

Impressive. The driver of the other car didn't come too close, and, yet Jack couldn't shake it, not without a flat out race on the interstate. Exciting perhaps, and a choice he might have made as little as five years ago, but—no matter how much he wanted to stomp the pedal to the metal—he couldn't justify the risk to civilians.

However, now that he had some idea that he might be dealing with a professional, he thought back over his last few missions. All of them had been sewed up tight. Logan Kincaid, his boss, didn't leave loose ends. But perhaps one of the team was working a case that he hadn't been brought up to speed on yet. A case that might be casting danger in his direction.

Jack turned down the heavy metal blaring from the radio and hit the call button of his cell phone.

"The Shey Group," a secretary answered.

"Logan Kincaid, please."

"Bored with your vacation, Jack?" Logan's warmly modulated voice came over the speaker phone.

His boss might not be in his office, but he was usually available. Due to state-of-the-art technology, Logan forwarded his calls to his cell phone so he could be reached 24/7, pretty much anywhere in the world. "Ready to take on your next assignment?"

"Sheesh. I just got here."

"So you aren't calling because you missed us already? What's up?"

"I called to ask you the same question."

"I don't understand."

"Any operations working that I should know about?"

"We're practically shut down. Ryker's holed up in his apartment, Web's—"

"Then there's no reason for someone to be tailing me?"

"Jack, you haven't been down there twenty-four-hours and you already have some jealous—"

"I haven't even checked into a hotel." Yet. "I spent last night with my folks." A tense awkward evening he'd prefer to forget. How could they have raised a child and then have nothing to say to him except to criticize? In short order, they'd disparaged his career. His friends. His lack of a family. His wheels. And his haircut. You'd have thought he'd have come home with five earrings and a tattoo, instead of this sweet little coupe.

"Don't your folks turn in around eleven?"

Logan never forgot a detail. He'd once overheard Jack calling his mother to wish her a happy birthday. She hadn't been pleased when Jack had roused her out of a sound sleep at 10:30 pm. And Logan knew that Jack was a night owl and hadn't gone to sleep before midnight since he'd started shaving. So no doubt Logan thought he'd been out partying and had taken someone else's honey home and the car following was a jealous lover—but it wasn't like that.

"You need any help?" Logan offered.

If Jack asked, his boss would mobilize a team within twenty minutes. Jack lived for that kind of loyalty—something his parents wouldn't ever comprehend.

"I can handle it."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. I hardly think a yellow VW Bug would be the choice of an assassin."

He rechecked the side mirror. The car was still following him.

"Fine. Try not to get any speeding tickets."

Jack chuckled and let his foot ease off the gas. Just because he had superior reflexes and could handle high speed maneuvers didn't mean the local cops would appreciate his breaking the law.

For the moment, he adhered to the speed limit and allowed the tail to come after him. During his stint in the military Jack had learned the value of planning. He would pick the time and place for the confrontation with his mysterious pursuer. Someplace private. Where there was no chance of innocents catching a stray bullet.

Jack leaned over and opened the glove compartment. Driving with one hand, keeping his attention on the road, he reached for the gun. He tucked the weapon into the front of his jeans and checked the rearview mirror.

Soon. He would make his move.

Jack veered from the highway to the offramp. Two miles farther, he turned into an industrial section of town. He passed several rough-looking bars and crossed a parking lot with a dilapidated warehouse that squatted beside a chainlink fence overgrown with chin-high weeds. If he remembered correctly, the garage doors had long since been scrapped, leaving him a dark, private spot to corner his pursuer.

Jack drove around the back of the warehouse and stepped on the gas, heading straight for the double doors. He jammed on the brakes and hauled on the wheel, whipping the car around until he faced the entrance.

Within seconds, he'd exited his vehicle and took cover in the shadows by the opening. He flicked off the gun's safety and aimed. Timing was critical.

The VW slowed, then halted, just outside in the sunlight.

Come to me.

Just a little more.

The driver flicked on the headlights, and Jack averted his eyes to avoid being momentarily blinded. The car's driver edged forward.

While the sight of his car distracted the driver, Jack lunged toward the Bug and the door. He yanked on the handle. Employing several smooth moves, he pressed the gun to the driver's temple, locked his free arm around the driver's throat and dragged her from the car.

A woman. Too surprised to resist?

Her hair was auburn, the fragrance scented by sunshine. Jack had yet to see her face, but bad people came in curvy shapes and one hundred and ten pound packages. With her back pressed to his chest, he couldn't mistake the hard bulge of her harness and gun poking his ribs.

The female was armed.

"Don't move one freakin' finger. Don't so much as breathe hard, sugar."

Odd. She still hadn't tensed. Didn't fight him.

Instead, she chuckled. "Oh, Jack. You always were such a hot head. You going to pat me down?"

He hadn't heard that voice in ten years. Two things became clear. She wasn't scared, but amused. And Jack immediately recognized her voice. "Piper?"

His next-door neighbor? The bane of his childhood existence? The pesky kid who had found his stash of Playboy magazines under his bed when he'd been nine? The tomboy who'd followed him all through his teenage years? The same Piper who'd spied on him while he got to second base with some cheerleader whose name he'd long since forgotten? The same Piper who had begged him for a ride on his motorcycle and then who wouldn't go until he found her a helmet and had promised not to speed?

Stifling a curse, Jack flicked his thumb to engage the gun's safety, then tucked the weapon into the small of his back. "Piper . . . Payne?"

She giggled. "In the flesh." He released her, but she didn't step away. Instead she turned to face him.

He had only a second to glimpse ivory skin and wide-set mischievous eyes before she slipped her arms around his neck and bussed him right on the lips.

"Hey!" He stepped back.

And took a good look at her. He hadn't seen her since she was a skinny fifteen-year-old with braces and tattered jeans. The braces were gone, and she now boasted straight white teeth, full lips and a short nose dusted with freckles. She'd done something to her carrot red hair, and it now shimmered a rich auburn with golden highlights. The same cool green eyes that he remembered stared back at him, her amusement mocking him.

She wore a skimpy white top that skimmed the curves of her breasts. No bra. If he stared hard enough, he might just make out the outline of her . . . Hell! This was Piper the Pest with a capital P. He wasn't going to leer at her chest, no matter how alluringly she dressed or didn't dress. He wasn't going to look at her bare midriff or the way her hips flared into her shorts. He certainly wasn't going to look at her long, tanned legs. And he most certainly wasn't going to think about her full breasts pressing against his chest or her kissing him.

He narrowed his eyes. "You were following me."

She shrugged a delicate shoulder and one of the thin straps of her top hitched down her arm. "I'm so busted."

Piper had always known how to get under his skin. Always knew how to say the most irritating things.

Jack fought the urge to push the strap back where it belonged and instead folded his arms over his chest. "Why were you following me?"

"I wanted to see you."

Obviously. When she avoided a direct answer to his question, his pulse rate shot up. Simply an excess of adrenalin. Surely she still couldn't be such an impossibly irritating brat, could she?

She raised her hands innocently. "What?"

Already she had him speaking through gritted teeth. "Why did you want to see me?"

"Your mom told me you were back, and I thought you might take me up for a ride. I arrived to see your engines fail and you dropping out of the sky like a dead duck." She flung her arms around his neck. And brushed his mouth with hers, again. "I thought you were a goner."


She retreated half a step before he figured out how to react to her second kiss. She meant nothing by it. She'd always been as friendly as a stray puppy.

But his body wasn't reacting as if her hug was simply friendly. And his mind was stunned, his brain temporarily off kilter, no doubt due to the fact that his circulatory system had erroneously sent all his blood to anatomical regions below his belt.

Down boy. This one's not for you.

She scowled at him. "I should have known you were simply pulling some fool stunt."

"You were worried about me?"

Piper rolled her eyes. "I sure would have hated to see all that pretty machinery crash and burn."

She still hadn't told him the real reason why she'd wanted to see him. The stubborn girl had grown into a stubborn woman. And she was all woman.

You shouldn't even look at her that way, Jack.

Even if she hadn't been the most annoying girl-child on the planet, even if she had grown into a woman who could knock his socks off, even if she was still single, the Pest and Jack Donovan together would never happen. They were like a cuban sandwich with cornbeef—they didn't mix well. Try to lump them together and they both got indigestion.

By-the-book Piper was a straight arrow. She'd never cheated in school. Never lied to her parents. Always came in by curfew. Didn't drive over the speed limit or run yellow lights. He'd bet a month's pay she hadn't tasted alcohol until she'd turned twenty-one.

He'd heard she'd become a cop, and he could imagine her writing tickets for jaywalking. Piper saw things in black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. For her, there were no gray areas and no moral dilemmas. She was one of the few genuinely good people he knew, probably why he found her so damn exasperating.

Nope, she wasn't for him.

After last night's disaster with his parents, he'd promised himself he'd move into a hotel on the beach and spend the remaining days of his vacation with a warm, willing babe who wanted nothing from him except a good time. He should go home and pack.

However, if he did, he'd miss the sunset.

"How about a beer and a grouper sandwich?" he asked.