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Johnnie Riggs was a night owl. Tonight he sat at a table at the Kitty Cat Club on Sunset Boulevard, watching a little blonde pole dancer with the hottest body he'd ever seen and trying like hell not to get an erection.
He reached for the Bud Light sitting in front of him, took a swallow and set the barely touched bottle back down on the table. He wasn't there to get drunk. He wasn't there to get turned on by some sexy little piece of fluff.
He was there to make a collar and a nice chunk of change.
A former Army Ranger with a P.I.'s license, Johnnie spent most of his time in the bars and clubs of Los Angeles, digging up information for clients who could afford his fees. And the occasional recovery job, if the money was high enough.
He glanced around the club, one of the better run strip joints in the area, a place an out-of-town businessman could go for a little harmless fun and not feel like he was about to get mugged when he walked outside to catch a cab.
Johnnie knew the owner, a guy named Tate Watters, a reasonable sort who ran a clean operation. Tate knew Johnnie was there to collect a skip, but Tate was a stand-up guy who did his best to stay on the right side of the law, and having a pervert aroundJohnnie's targetwasn't good for business.
It was dark inside the club except for the neon beer signs behind the bar and the soft glow of lights over gilt-framed photos of nineteen-fifties strippers that hung on the walls. A row of colored spotlights lit the woman performing onstage.
The place smelled like stale beer and cheap perfume, and rock music hid the sound of clinking bar glasses and the heavy breathing of the men. Customers sat in the darkness at small round tables sipping whiskey or beer, staring toward the entertainment with big smiles on their faces.
Johnnie didn't blame them. He'd be wearing a big smile, too, along with a raging hard-on if he wasn't there on business.
He watched the woman on the stage. She was twenty-five or -six, a pretty little exotic dancer wearing nothing but red sequined pasties and a matching G-string. She wasn't just petite, she was dainty, little more than five feet tall, with the shiniest, straightest, long blond hair he'd ever seen. Short bangs fluttered across her forehead above a pair of blue eyes that made him shift in his seat against his growing arousal, and muttering a curse between his teeth.
The music played, the beat steady, loud and erotic. She raised a red spike heel, wrapped her calf around the pole and slid up, then sank back down, rubbing the pole between her pale, perfectly proportioned legs. He felt a tug in his gut so strong he had to shove back his chair and get up from the table. Grabbing his beer bottle, he walked to the back of the club where he could survey the room and put a little more distance between him and the scrumptious piece of ass on the stage.
He scanned the patrons, keeping a careful watch for his target.
Earlier in the week, he'd gotten a call from his Ranger buddy in Houston. Trace Rawlins owned a security firm with branches in Houston and Dallas. In the years since they'd left the army, they had worked together a dozen times, most recently on an abduction case that had led them into Mexico.
According to Trace, a guy named Ray Carroll had jumped bail and was on the run. Rumor was he had friends in L.A. and odds were good that was where he had gone to ground. Good ol' Ray had been arrested for possession and trafficking in child pornographythe lowest of the low as far as Johnnie was concerned. He would have taken the guy down for free if he'd had to, which fortunately he didn't.
The case was interesting because Ray was the grandson of the late Texas oil billionaire, C. P. Carroll. C.P.'s widow was filthy rich and she doted on her grandson, which, with that kind of money at his disposal, made Ray a flight risk. His bail had been set at a half-million dollars, which his grandmother had posted.
But Ray had taken off for parts unknown, leaving grandma on the hook for a boatload of money if her boy wasn't caught and brought back to appear in court. For ten percent of the bail fee, a cool fifty thou less a referral fee to Trace, Johnnie had agreed to find him. Surprisingly, once he'd started digging, narrowing his search hadn't been all that hard.
Since leopards didn't change their spots and jackals like Ray were fairly predictable, it didn't take long to find out that Carroll hung out in the local strip clubs.
The Kitty Cat was his favorite. According to the bartender who ID'd the photo Johnnie had shown him, a guy calling himself Ray Conners had been in the club both Wednesday and Thursday nights. Johnnie had come in on Friday and again tonight but so far hadn't seen any sign of him. Not until now.
The black padded vinyl front door swung open, letting a thin slice of street noise into the club. Recalling the photo, Johnnie recognized Ray Carroll as he ambled over to the bar. He was an average-looking forty-year-old, with thinning brown hair and the kind of greasy smile you'd expect to see on a creep like him. He sat down on one of the black vinyl bar stools, and the bartender, a tall, spare, good-looking Hispanic guy named Dante, flashed Johnnie a heads-up glance before taking Ray's drink order, a double Grey Goose martini on the rocks.
A cocktail waitress walked past. The girls who performed also served drinks, though for that they wore a few more clothes. This one, a brunette, was tall and svelte, dressed in a little blue satin two-piece number, the bottom cut high on the sides, a built-in push-up bra shoving her heavy cleavage nearly over the top. Not indecent, but definitely less than the old bunny outfits they wore at the Playboy Club.
Johnnie sipped his beer, his attention fixed on Ray, who stared with fascination toward the stage. The dancer, Angel Fontaine, being not much bigger than a kid, was Ray's favorite according to Dante. He watched as she dipped and swayed to the music, the red sequins on her nipples flashing in the spotlight, the light changing color to the rhythm of the music.
Johnnie tried to look away, but found himself as mesmerized as the drunks at the tables. Like the rest of her body, her breasts were perfectly formed, not too large, not too small and tilted provocatively upward.
Her face wasn't perfect, he had finally gotten around to noticing. Her mouth was a little too wide, making her pouty lips a little too pronounced. Her cheeks were as flawless as rose petals but her chin was a little too pointy.
She was the sexiest woman Johnnie had ever seen.
She turned, thrust her pale, luscious ass into the air and wiggled it suggestively, and his groin tightened. If he didn't make his move soon, he wouldn't be able to walk, let alone make a collar.
Ray came off his stool just then and started toward the stage. Johnnie noticed the folded dollar bills in one hand as he approached the little blonde.
Another man beat Ray to her, leaning over and stuffing a ten-dollar bill into Angel's sequined G-string, the scrap of red barely covering the spot every guy in the place dreamed of touching. Angel whirled away from him and smiled, mouthing a thank-you. When she turned her back, raised her arms above her head and began swaying to the hard rock beat, another man stuffed a bill into the glittering strip of red around her waist above that sweet little ass.
Ray moved closer, hovering as Angel approached the edge of the stage. He leaned toward her, stuffed the money into her G-string. He was grinning when he turned away, his mind on pussy instead of escape.
Johnnie made his move, slamming into Carroll, knocking him over an empty table, both of them crashing to the floor. Ray struggled as Johnnie caught his arm, cranked it behind his back, lifted and hauled him to his feet. Johnnie caught sight of the club's big Asian bouncer moving toward them, but he didn't seem to be in much of a hurry. Guess he'd got word about the pervert, too.
Carroll squirmed in his grasp. "What the fuck? Who the hell are you?"
"I'm your worst nightmare," Johnnie said, cranking the arm a little higher, eliciting a satisfying grunt of pain. "I'm the guy who's gonna make sure you get back to Houston safe and sound." Ray stumbled a couple of times as Johnnie's heavy frame propelled him forward, slamming him into the wall beside the door. "I'm the guy who's gonna put your sorry, sick ass back in jail."
The moment the song ended and she stepped down from the stage, Amy started to tremble. Angel, she reminded herself. Angel, not Amy.
"You okay?" Her roommate walked toward her, Babs McClure, Sugar Babs, she used as her stage name. She was five foot seven with a curvy figure and chin-length dark brown hair she sometimes covered with a hot-pink wig.
Amy managed to nod. "I will be in a minute." It was one thing to be out there beneath the spotlights, dancing almost naked as Angel Fontaine, another entirely to be just a normal woman again. Onstage, she could fool herself into thinking she was Angel, a woman who enjoyed every catcall, every wolf whistle from the men she danced in front of without her clothes. An illusion she worked tirelessly to achieve.
But it didn't last long once she stepped out of the spotlight.
"That was quite a scene." Babs cocked her head toward the side door where the brawny, dark-haired man had just hauled a scummy-looking customer out of the club.
Amy followed Babs's gaze. As if she hadn't noticed the brawl just a few feet in front of the stage.
"Dante says the creep that guy busted is into kiddie porn."
Amy shuddered. "He certainly looks the part." She crossed the backstage area and started up the stairs leading to the studio apartment she and Babs shared above the club. "So I guess the other guy is a cop or something."
"Or something." Babs fell into step beside her, pulled off her pink wig and ranked a hand through her dark hair. "He was in here last night, too."
"I saw him."
Babs grinned. "Hard to miss a guy who looks like that."
Amy grinned back. "No kidding." Six feet of solid muscle, barrel-chested with a thick neck and shoulders. As he'd walkedmore like swaggeredtoward the stage, she'd noticed a tattoo of an eagle on his very impressive biceps. Every move he made spoke of power and strength, and in a rugged, masculine way, he was handsome.
"I asked Tate about him," Babs said. "Says his name is John Riggs. He's an ex-Army Ranger. Does P.I. work and pretty much anything else he can make a buck at." Babs rolled her eyes. "What a hunk."
Just hearing the words brought his image to mind: dark brown hair and eyes such a deep brown they looked black, strong jaw roughened by the shadow of a beard. He was the kind of guy who should have Dangerous stamped on his forehead.
Amy's mind slipped back to her performance onstage and the way he had looked at her, his eyes following her every move. She had never felt a gaze so intense.
It was late, nearly closing. Amy blew out a breath, suddenly exhausted.
"You look like you could use a cup of coffee," Babs said as they reached the small apartment they shared and Amy unlocked the door. There were other small apartments down the hall, cheap places for the girls to live. "I put on a fresh pot before I went downstairs."
"Sounds good." The rich aroma filled the room as she stepped inside. She and Babs hadn't known each other long yet Babs watched out for her. She was Amy's only confidante, the only person who knew the truth, knew she wasn't really an exotic dancer, had never done anything in her entire life remotely as wild as what she was doing now.
She wasn't a stripper, a pole dancer, a lap dancer or anything the least bit similar. She was a schoolteacher from Michigan, a woman who had absolutely no business being naked up onstage.
They crossed the studio apartment: two single beds, a kitchenette, and a small living area with a sofa and chair. Babs went to the kitchen counter and took down two mugs, pouring coffee into each one. Amy grabbed her robe from the hook beside the door, slipped it on and breathed a sigh of relief once she was more decently covered. Babs was still wearing her dark blue satin cocktail waitress costume, sexy but no worse than the bikinis women wore on the beach.
She took the mug Babs held out to her and they carried them over to the tiny round table in the corner.
"So what about the hunk?" Babs asked, watching her over the rim of her cup.
Amy's blond brows went up. "What about him?"
"He was certainly giving you the eye."
Amy just shrugged. "When you're up there naked, they all give you the eye."
"This was differentand don't tell me you didn't notice."
Oh, she'd noticed all right. She could feel the heat in those dark eyes all the way across the room. It was what that hot look did to her that was startling. The Kitty Cat Club was filled with men every night. None of them made her stomach flip the way a single look from John Riggs had. Two nights in a row, he'd sat in the shadows watching, his fierce gaze singularly focused on her. At the same time he seemed aware of every other person in the room.
"He got his man tonight." Amy sighed. "We won't be seeing him again."
Babs sipped her coffee. "Wanna bet?"
Amy glanced up. "You don't think he'll come back because of me?"
"I've been doing this for almost three years, hon. One thing you learn to recognize is when a man is interested. And let me tell you, honey, John Riggs has a major interest in you."
Her stomach contracted. If she closed her eyes, she could almost feel the heat in those dark eyes burning into her. "You're crazy. He was here on business, that's all."
Amy laughed. "You're on."