The street front was empty as Jack Hunter parked his Aston Martin near the front door of DreamMakers Inc. The music from the party he’d just left still pulsed in his veins, and he hummed along with the tune stuck on repeat in his brain, clicking open his trunk to pull out the enormous box filled with mostly full bottles of leftover booze.
Normally at the end of a party, remaining stock belonged to the clients who’d purchased it. In this case the party had been for one of their own, which meant the leftovers were going to refill the office liquor cabinet.
Jack grinned. When he and his best friend, Parker Wilson, had established DreamMakers it had been gamble. They’d wanted to capitalize on the skills they’d gained as soldiers while enjoying life to the max. The fact the company had become wildly successful didn’t suck.
He put his shoulder to the door, balancing the heavy box with one arm as he coded in the security key. After years of serving overseas as a Ranger, it felt strange to be home. Still watching his back, and the backs of his partners, only no longer against a foreign danger.
The security system flickered from armed to standby, and he moved quickly to get under shelter as rain began to fall.
Inside the office, he moved rapidly through the darkness, familiar with every inch of space. To his right their secretary’s desk stood vigil near the front door, a half-dozen comfortable waiting chairs lining the wall across from it. Didi had left her radio on low—no matter how many times he and the guys teased her, they couldn’t convince the older woman to shut things off at night. And considering how much work she did, none of the three partners was prepared to call her up on the carpet for something as minor as leaving her music playing night and day.
He shut off the radio, then headed to the staff area at the back of the building, past the center corridor where they each had an office. He and Dean Colter pretended to work in theirs. Parker Wilson actually had a desk and chairs in his office space, his open door revealing impeccable military neatness in every organized inch.
Jack wasn’t so much into the office furniture and filing cabinets. He had a couch. It worked fine for the rare times he was in the building.
DreamMakers organized dates for the people who couldn’t coordinate enthusiastic enough romantic gestures on their own. In the beginning, their work had been one hundred percent reaching out to confused and desperate friends. The guys who needed some major groveling to get themselves off their ladies’ shit-lists, but over the past three years the company’s reputation had grown.
It wasn’t just about getting their fellow man out of trouble anymore. Now they helped anyone who needed some direction in planning a romantic date or kickass celebration.
Jack paced the hallway, the sneakers he’d changed into after leaving the party landing silently on the laminate flooring. He made it all the way to the staff room/kitchen area and froze.
A light shone by the sink. That in itself wasn’t enough to make him blink. No, it was the light and the dusty backpack lying on the counter that shoved his suspicions into high gear.
He set the box in his hands on the floor, checking around carefully as he reached for the corner cupboard and silently pulled out the gun stashed there. Didi constantly teased the men about the strategically placed weapons in the office, and their reply was always the same—Rangers for life. You could take the man outta the army, but you couldn’t take the army outta the man.
Gun in hand, Jack eased into the corner to prepare himself for anything.A quick peek behind the freestanding barrier by the back exit revealed a worn pair of shoes left outside the bathroom door.
Someone appeared to have entered the building, and unless they were currently strolling the streets of San Francisco in bare feet, they had to still be around. And from the size of the shoes, his mystery person was a whole lot smaller than him.
He’d already seen into all but three of the rooms, and one of those was rapidly eliminated as Jack cautiously poked his head around the corner to discover an empty bathroom.
The towel hanging on the rack was still damp, but other than that there was no sign of his intruder. Which left one of two places.
He paced silently down the hall to stand outside Dean’s office, cocking his head toward the door. Nothing. Nothing but silence so thick it made his ears buzz. He was reaching for the doorknob when a low murmur jerked him from his task.
Someone in the building, less than ten feet away. Somewhere behind the door that led to Jack’s domain.
Maybe he should’ve called for backup, but Parker and his sweetheart Lynn had just left the party, and while Jack knew his friend wouldn’t hesitate for even a moment before dropping everything, he could handle this one on his own.
As for Dean, the man was undoubtedly by this time buried deep in bed with at least two women. It required an emergency on par with a nuclear attack before Jack would dream of interrupting his evening.
He steadied his gun hand, then twisted the doorknob exactly right to avoid letting it squeak. He pushed on the wood, letting the heavy surface swing away from him. There were no curtains on his window, and outside the streetlights illuminated the area. Cool blue light shone in and revealed the entire room. Jack glanced quickly for his target.
His basketball hoop was mounted on one wall. A heavy bag hung in the corner. The rest of his kit was laid over an exercise bench beside the school lockers he’d found to store stuff in. To his right, directly below the window, was the leather couch he’d inherited from his dad, the only thing he’d gotten besides the Aston Martin.
And on the couch, where he definitely had not left anything, was a small bump covered with the blanket that usually hung over the back of the nearby chair. The blanket he’d picked up one wild weekend in Mexico on a road trip with Parker back when they were still in high school.
The size of the lump confirmed his guess that the vagabond visitor wouldn’t present too much danger, unless they were armed. And the way they were lying on the couch, facing toward the back, no way they could get off a shot if Jack incapacitated them first.
All his calculations took less than three seconds before he was across the room, landing on top of his uninvited guest. A grunt of pain escaped the stranger as Jack used his full weight to pin down his target and render him—or her—immobile.
His fingers easily circled delicate wrists—either a child or a woman—and he instinctively eased off to avoid causing any damage.
“Don’t move. Don’t do anything, or you’ll hurt yourself,” he warned.
The body under him wiggled, the motion barely registering on his bulk. The groaning escalated, turning into a string of creative and anatomically impossible curses. A feminine voice, definitely.
His suspicions were confirmed when she flipped her head, long black hair whipping past his face as she snapped her teeth at him. “Jack? What are you doing? Get the hell off me.”
A feminine voice, yes, but more than that, a familiar feminine voice. Jack was already scrambling to his feet as he responded. “Pepper? Is that you?”
She moaned as she rolled to her back. “God, I don’t know. What the hell time is it?”
“Holy ravioli, are you pointing a gun at me? You maniac!”
Stifling a groan, he tucked the weapon in his waistband with the safety clicked on, then backed to the doorway and flipped on the overhead light. “Jesus, Pepper. Why on earth are you here?”
She’d pulled herself to a seated position, elbows resting on her knees, head cradled in her hands. She swayed as she sat there, and Jack rushed across the room to brace his hands on her shoulders and steady her. “You okay?”
Her shoulders lifted then relaxed as an enormous sigh escaped her. “Nobody was supposed to be here tonight.”
She steadfastly looked at the floor, and Jack’s suspicions rose. “Why didn’t you come to Lynn and Parker’s party? And when did you get back into town? And why are you—?”
Pepper lifted her head, and his questions vanished as a jolt of anger struck him hard in the gut.
Her right eye was partially closed, shades of blue and purple tinting the area all around it. A long, partially healed scratch ran from her cheek up into her hair. Hair that was obviously dyed, because when he’d seen her last she’d had her brilliant red locks piled high in a ponytail, her whole body vibrating with life and excitement.
Now she looked beaten and defeated, not at all like the energetic, enthusiastic pain in the ass he’d known while they were growing up.
“Who the hell did this to you?” Jack asked as he reached to cup her cheek gently. He traced his thumb over the cut.
“Doesn’t matter.” Her big green eyes tightened with pain as she adjusted position.
His earlier flash of anger returned, and he didn’t even bother to restrain his frustration. “What do you mean it doesn’t matter? Pepper, you’ve been MIA for the last two months, and you finally show up looking like someone’s taken a two-by-four to you. Bullshit on it not mattering. I want to know exactly what happened. And don’t think that Parker is gonna—”
“Don’t.” The word shot out like a bullet. “You can’t tell him. Or my mom and dad.”
She pulled back, and his hand fell away. From the way she was moving, the bruises on her face weren’t the only ones she carried.
His blood was boiling.
She’d been like an irritating little sister, tagging along uninvited behind him and Parker, at least when they were in high school. Later, when he and Parker had signed up for the army and their ventures home had become far less frequent, her presence in his life had changed. She was no longer annoying, no longer constantly trying to get into their things.
Her wild forays into his life had brought a different sensation to his gut. Something that made him uncomfortable, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
But in spite of the discomfort, no way in hell was she going to get away with not telling him the details. He’d take care of her whether she wanted him to or not.
He sat back on his heels and stared at her. She stared back, a storm of defiance rising in her expression.
“How do you think you’re going to keep this from them?” Jack demanded. He gestured toward her bruises. “Parker’s gonna take one look at you and be ready to go on a manhunt.”
“I’m not going home. Not until this is gone.” She fluttered her hand in front of her face. “And I can put on makeup.”
She was waking up, becoming more alert with every passing moment. Jack admired how swiftly she’d gone from sound asleep to ready to do mental battle with him. And that was in spite of the fact that he’d recently crushed her under him on the couch.
The thought disturbed him. Made him feel guilty, which he shoved aside to concentrate on the current issue. “No amount of makeup is going to hide anything right, and you can’t sleep here in the DreamMakers office without getting caught.”
“I’m going to find a hotel tomorrow. It was too late tonight, and I was worried that if I tried to check in…”
She broke eye contact with him, and for a second Jack wondered if this was even more serious than it looked at first. “Pepper. I want to know, and I want to know now. Is there some bastard out there who needs killing? Or did you already do it?”
She jerked in surprise, turning back to face him. “Oh, no. It was nothing like that.” She made a face, adjusting position as she ran a cautious hand over her ribs. “I can honestly say that it was ninety percent an accident.”
That still meant ten percent someone else was to blame for her being hurt, and Jack’s protective instincts kicked into overdrive. He knew better than to follow that line of thought with her, though. Pushing the issue at this moment wouldn’t get him anywhere.
She’d been smart enough to realize if she had attempted to check into a hotel someone would’ve asked some tough questions. Now it was Jack doing the asking, and he wasn’t going to allow her to say no.
But first he’d need to get her to a place where he had the upper hand. He stood, towering over her, thinking it through. The only solution he could think of that didn’t involve Parker or her parents was pretty simple.
“Get your stuff. You’re coming home with me.”
Her jaw dropped slightly in disbelief. “Excuse me?”
He tugged the blanket from her hands and tossed it back onto the couch. “You heard me. Grab your things and let’s go. Unless you want to be here when the office opens in the morning. That would be a great way to stop Parker from finding out you’re back in town and that someone’s been using you as a punching bag.”
She shot to her feet, a frown building in her expression, but the instant she got vertical she swayed violently. Once again Jack reached out to steady her, catching hold of her arms. She cringed as he made contact, and he let go quickly, swearing as he jerked the sleeve of her T-shirt over her shoulder.
A massive blue bruise covered her arm from elbow to shoulder. “Jesus, Pepper.”
“If you don’t mind, I don’t need to be manhandled.”
“No, but it looks like you need a keeper. Get your things and don’t argue.”
She shrugged out of his grasp, stomping past him and down the hallway to where her bag sat. He followed hard on her heels, clenching his teeth to stop from saying anything more.
As she slipped on her sneakers, Jack glanced around to make sure all signs of her presence were gone. At some point, he’d tell his best friend what he’d done, but this wasn’t the moment.
He ignored that little sense of impending doom that hovered over him as they left the office, resetting the security system. “You knew the access codes.”
“Parker told me a long time ago, and they were still the same. Good thing you guys never went into security. You’d suck.” She plopped into the passenger seat of his car, for the first time looking something other than annoyed. “Nice wheels. I didn’t expect something like this from you, Jackjack.”
Another shot of anger, this time not at all associated with anything to do with her. “It was my Dad’s.”
He stepped on the gas, cranking the music up to discourage her from saying anything else. They had too much to talk about, but at that moment he didn’t want to say a single thing.
The night wasn’t proceeding like she’d expected, and the entire drive from her brother’s office to Jack’s apartment, Pepper appreciated the gap in conversation. It gave her time to really consider what she was going to tell him.
Well, at least part of it. That was the only option, because the best lies were always based on truth.
No way in hell would she admit all the details. Not to the man who probably figured she was still a virgin, and besides, he’d probably go and spill the beans to her brother. Which was all kinds of wrong.
Jack’s sphinx imitation continued until he tossed his keys on the sideboard just inside his apartment door. “Bathroom is down the hall on the left, guest room is the next door toward the back. Sleep as long as you want. The office isn’t open until noon tomorrow, so I’ll be around in the morning, and we can talk then.”
It wasn’t the brightest idea she’d ever had, but he was so damned cocky and bossy she couldn’t help but argue. “What if I don’t want to talk to you in the morning?”
Jack stopped in the middle of pacing away from her, then turned back with darkness in his eyes. Man, she’d forgotten how deadly those dark chocolate eyes could look. Normally they twinkled with humor—well, when his gaze was directed at someone other than her. For some reason, she seemed to bring out his intense side.
Also known as his annoying caveman asshole side.
“Go to bed, little girl. You really don’t want to push me right now.”
His snide dismissal stung. “Really?”
“Really. Because if you don’t want to talk, first I’m going to find out exactly how far those bruises go, even if it means I have to strip you like a toddler who’s fallen into a mud puddle. And I won’t give a damn how little you like it.”
She paused, working for control. “You wouldn’t dare.”
He shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time I had to rescue you, and this is a whole lot more serious than you taking a tumble into some dirty water wearing your good clothes.”
Then he stood there, waiting for her to make a decision. Waiting for her to push him one more time. “You are the most irritating, overbearing, bullheaded, stupid bastard.”
“Agreed. Now get your ass to bed before I change my mind about this entire thing and send you home.”
They stared each other down again. Pepper was tempted to ruffle his feathers some more, but truth was, she was too damn exhausted for any further verbal sparring, so she decided to let Jack win.
“Fine.” She tilted her head. “Can you give me something to sleep in? I don’t want to soil Jack Hunter’s sacred sheets with my dirty traveling clothes.”
A muscle in his jaw twitched. “I’ll grab you a T-shirt.”
She trailed after him toward the hallway, too tired to pay much attention to her surroundings. Then again, she probably wasn’t missing much. Knowing Jack, the whole apartment was furnished with beanbag chairs and decorated with framed headshots of his cocky self.
His cocky, attractive self. Just because the man was a major pain in the butt didn’t mean she couldn’t acknowledge his hotness. Six feet tall, rock-hard bod, chiseled features—Jack Hunter was hot with a capital everything. Growing up, she’d seen countless girls throw themselves at him, though how any of them had stomached his God’s-gift-to-the-world attitude, she had no clue.
Maybe he made up for it in bed? Naah, she doubted it. If the guy wasn’t a selfish lover, she’d eat her hat.
Jack stopped at the second door and left her in the hall as he popped in to find her a shirt. He returned a moment later and thrust out his hand. “Here. Now go to bed.”
She accepted the faded gray T-shirt. “Thank you, Master. I shall retire to my quarters and see you on the morrow.”
He raked a hand through his sandy-blond hair and muttered something under his breath.
“What was that?” she said sweetly.
His jaw tensed. “I was just saying your hippie parents really should’ve reconsidered their no-spanking stance.”
Pepper smirked at him. “Wow. You wanna spank me, Jackjack? Dirty boy.”
Something crossed his expression, a flicker of…holy Ryan Seacrest, was that heat?
It was very rare for Pepper to be caught off guard, but for a moment, she was rendered speechless. The thought that Jack Hunter—Jack Hunter—could feel even the teeniest smidgen of lust in her presence—her, Pepper Wilson—was downright mind-boggling. He’d never treated her like anything other than a pesky kid sister, and was as possessive and protective as Parker when it came to keeping her in line. Jack was a grumpy, prickly stick-in-the-mud. He was the bane of her existence, and she was the bane of his. That was how it’d always been.
She must have imagined that lustful glimmer in his eyes. Two months of traveling in a cramped car with four other people had clearly made her go insane.
“I swear to God, Pepper, if you don’t go to bed in the next two seconds, I’ll—”
“Take a chill pill,” she cut in, sighing dramatically. “I’m going, all right?” With that, she strode off toward the last door in the hall, tossing a saccharine look over her shoulder. “Nighty-night, Jackjack.”
When she was alone in the bedroom, she collapsed, her carefree bravado snuffed out like a wet candle. God, she was tired. And sore. And, frankly, still pissed off. What had started off as a fun cross-country road trip with her fellow college grads had ended with a bang. And not the good kind of bang, where people ended up sweaty and sated.
Nope, it was the kind of bang that left her looking like a reject from a Jean-Claude Van Damme street-fighting movie.
Her plan to come home like the prodigal daughter and greet her folks and Parker with hugs and kisses had been shot to hell. Jack was right—her brother would go on a murder spree once he saw her face, and her parents would never let her leave their house again. Which interfered with her other plan, the one that involved finding her own place and living a life where she wasn’t being babied by everyone.
Sighing, Pepper changed into the shirt Jack had given her. The soft fabric swallowed her entire body and hung past her knees, making her feel like an orphan girl who’d been taken in by a gentle giant. Except…Jack, gentle? Ha. She’d pay money to see that.
Well, if she had any money. Her savings account was pitiful since she’d refused to take out any school loans. Her parents had fronted the tuition costs, but Pepper had paid her own expenses and residence fees by waitressing at a diner back in Chicago. She didn’t like owing anyone anything, and she had every intention of paying her parents back the first chance she got.
But right now…sleep was the only item on her agenda. Tomorrow she’d call Kendra and arrange to pick up the belongings she’d abandoned at their campsite. And then she’d suck it up and let Jack lecture her for a while.
And after that? Time to take charge of her life, and woe to anyone who screwed around with her plans for the future. This was one girl who’d seen the light, and she had no intention of lying down and letting anyone walk over her ever again.Return to Love is a Battlefield