Stripped Bounty Chapter One Excerpt







Three months later…

“No Colors or Weapons Allowed.”

Rosie Santini read the sign mounted on the brick exterior wall of the establishment. Shaking her head, she opened the solid wood front door and stepped out of the Phoenix hundred-and-four degree heat and into the dimly lit, air-conditioned strip club.

Back in the day “colors” meant a biker’s patches—as in motorcycle club patches. Commonly found on the back of a leather or denim vest. Considering there was a pack of Harleys parked on the sidewalk out front, Rosie figured in Arizona that’s exactly what the sign referred to. Plus, as she’d learned pretty quickly after arriving in town, barring having a criminal record, people could carry a gun in AZ right out in the open for all to see.

She took a moment as her eyes adjusted, no longer sure if this was such a good idea, and looked around. Type O Negative’s “Christian Woman” blared from the speakers as Rosie walked forward on the old green and white—or gray, rather—linoleum-tiled floor. A small birdcage-style stage sat empty off to her left. To her right, the mahogany bar, with its large mirrored backsplash and various bottles of booze, stretched along the whole wall. In the center of the large space sat a collection of small round tables, a tealight candle atop each one, with two pleather chairs arced around them. Doing a quick count, around twenty or so customers occupied the bar. Not uncommon for the middle of the day in a strip club.

Ahead of the tables was the main stage in the shape of an upside-down T. Mirrors lined the back wall with red curtains draped theatre style at their edges. White rope lights ran along the edges of the narrow stage leading down to the wide part, which held a pole on each end. There was also a spinning wheel mounted on the ceiling near center stage; she hadn’t seen one of those in years. And finally another pole, near the mirrors along the back wall.

Two girls had the big stage, clad only in their G-strings and stripper heels. One circling a pole, the other on her hands and knees as a patron stood behind her, dollar bill at the ready. Rosie shook her head. Dancers these days barely danced—hardly did anything to put on an actual show or striptease. That was the whole point, wasn’t it? At least back in her heyday it was.

She drew in a deep breath and blew it out. Deuce’s Cabaret wasn’t seedy…necessarily. But it wasn’t plush, either. More that it needed a face-lift. Desperately. Not her first or even fourth choice for employment. But it’d do. At least the music was good.

Rosie circled in place, scanning the corners of the club, looking for cameras. And there wasn’t a single one to be found. Anywhere. Hopefully they had good bouncers. She’d spotted at least two of those throughout the space.

Hiking her big pocketbook a little higher on her shoulder, Rosie blew out a breath and stepped to the bartender. “Hi there.”

The big man, clad in a black T-shirt, turned from the cash register and faced her. Rosie lost her breath when she caught sight of his face but managed to get a grip on herself as he walked toward her. He dipped his chin, cocking his head to the side, as he wiped the bar top directly in front of her with a white bar rag. “You lost?”

Rosie swallowed past the layer of glue that’d suddenly appeared on her tongue. Jesus, he was breathtaking…speech-taking, too. Perfect nose, full lips, the bottom one a tad fuller. Incredible bone structure. Freaking guy could be a model. He was huge, too—muscular and at least six one, maybe taller. She blinked a few rapid blinks and glanced away from his piercing light-brown gaze.

In an attempt to gain some control of her thoughts, Rosie plopped her pocketbook down on the closest barstool and, after a breath, looked back to him. “No. Not lost. Are you by chance hiring?”

He crossed his muscled arms, his biceps bulging, testing the limits of his T-shirt sleeves. “Bar or stage?”
“Bar.” She managed a smile.

“Nope.” His stare didn’t waver and Rosie took in the small lines around his eyes, but also his strong jaw, partly hidden by a goatee and way-more-than-five o’clock shadow. Yeah, definitely a good-looking man.

“What about waitress?”

“Nope.” He dropped his arms and turned his back.

Wow! Had he really just dismissed her like that? What the hell. Rosie faced the stage, and the dancers again. The Pretty Reckless’s “Make Me Wanna Die” played now. She hadn’t been onstage in about two years, and it was the last place she wanted to be again. But she was broke. Getting across the country from Connecticut to Arizona had cost Rosie more than she’d thought. She hadn’t anticipated the freaking car dying. Twice. She hadn’t anticipated her husband dying, either. Jerk. Rosie would never forgive him for putting her in this position.

Biting the edge of her barely existent thumbnail, she turned back around and faced the bartender. Desperate times called for desperate measures. “Okay fine. Stage?”

With his back still to her, he glanced up from the bottle he was wiping down and caught her gaze through the reflection in the mirror. “You sure about that?”

Was she sure? Rosie’d already been to six other bars that day, and three the day before. No, she wasn’t fucking sure, but she needed a goddamn job. “Absolutely.”

He turned, stepped to the bar top and rested both his hands on the edge. Did a muscle in his jaw just tick? Again he dipped his chin and cocked his head to the side—almost as if he was sizing her up and judging her abilities right there on the spot.

A beat of nervous energy rolled through her. Talk about feeling like a bug under a microscope. Jesus, she was uncomfortable. Rosie crossed her arms and jutted out her chin. The guy might be hotter than hell but the last thing Rosie needed was bullshit from some stranger right now. 

“What?”

He pursed his lips, his firm gaze steady on her for another few moments before rubbing his palm along the side of his whiskered jaw and letting out a sigh. “Far side of the stage. Follow the hall to the back. Evie’ll help you out.”

“Oh.” She cleared her throat. “Okay then.” Rosie shouldered her bag, feeling a bit like she’d disappointed him. Which was pretty weird considering she didn’t even know him. “Thanks.”

Turning on her heel, she stepped away from the bar. He was still staring at her. She knew it. Rosie could feel his gaze like a physical touch, skittering down her spine and over her skin as she made her way across the club in the direction he’d sent her. The screwed-up thing was, rather than creepy, the feel of his eyes on her was titillating.

Considering she’d only lost her husband three months ago, her body’s reaction made her feel even more uncomfortable than she’d felt standing in front of him. Shrugging all of it off, Rosie walked through the narrow doorway in the far corner of the bar and down the empty, almost sterile hall.

And back into a world, she hadn’t wanted to ever visit again.


*

Badger shook his head as he watched the tall, slender brunette with the sad, dark-brown eyes walk toward the back hall. “Shame.”

“What’s that, Badge?” Deuce came up to the bar.

Badger glanced over to him. “Fresh meat.”

The owner took a seat in his spot at the end of the bar. “Fresh meat’s always good in my book. Nothing shameful about that.”

Badger grunted and reached for a fresh glass. “You want something?”

“Eh, just a seltzer water. Evie’s been nagging me about soda.” Deuce clasped his hands together on the bar top and looked toward the stage.

Badger filled the glass with the clear carbonated fluid. “Hate to break it to you, boss. But this is soda.”

“Like hell it is. It’s water with bubbles in it. Smart ass. Now, grab me a lemon.”

Badger chuckled and placed a lemon wedge on the edge of the glass. “We’re fresh out of umbrellas.”

“Kiss my ass.” Deuce chuckled and sipped the drink.

“Maybe later.” Badger grabbed the clipboard from the side of the register and went back to taking inventory.

Didn’t matter what the boss said, pretty girl like that one ending up being another stripper was a damn fucking shame. No two ways about it.

For a minute, since she’d asked about tending bar or waitressing, Badger thought, or maybe hoped, she might not be another pole jockey. So much for that. She had to have been on stage before. Sadly, you could take the girl out of the strip club, but eventually they came back. Especially if they still had some looks and a body. This one had both…in spades. Her eyes had gotten to him, though.

Badger looked up from the beer cooler to see her walking back across the bar toward the exit. She glanced over at him but quickly looked away before stepping out into the bright Arizona sun. Yeah, eyes were always a weakness or a warning for him. Hers were sad, like she’d seen some hurt in her days. But they were skittish, too. The skittish smacked of more than hurt in her past.

Regardless, he didn’t mess with the strippers anymore. Those days were long gone. But even if she hadn’t turned out to be a dancer, Badger would’ve steered clear anyway. There was enough “more” behind those sad and skittish eyes of hers for Badger to keep his distance. He didn’t need the drama or the headache that came along with that amount of luggage.

The front door opened again and the weekday bartender, Wendy, walked in. “Hey, Badger.” She waved as she passed by him on her way to the office, as if she wasn’t over thirty minutes late for her shift.

“You’re late and I got shit to do besides cover your ass behind the bar.”

She spun around, facing him, and shrugged, arms out at her sides. “Sorry. I had a flat.” She continued walking backward before turning again and disappearing down the hall.

Badger grunted before staring down at the clipboard in his hands again. Damn bar staff were just as bad as the dancers. It wouldn’t matter so much if he wasn’t always the one on point to cover until they brought their asses in. He was supposed to just run security, not the bar staff, too, but the lines tended to blur.

Mostly because Badger had a tendency to blur them.

Not that he’d admit that to Deuce if his life depended on it.

“You got some bounty hunter work to attend to?”

He glanced over at Deuce and nodded. “Yeah. Got a lead this morning on a skip I’ve been tracking.”

His boss looked at his watch. “Good luck. See you back here ’round eight?”

“’Course.” He set the clipboard down and jerked his chin at Deuce as he stepped out from behind the bar. “Earlier if I can. Order’s ready to go. Don’t wait up, honey.”

“But, darling, we haven’t had any quality time together.”

“Yeah, yeah.” With a wave over his shoulder, Badger chuckled and headed for the same hall he’d sent the brunette down. As he passed the dressing room, he gave a nod to Evie, Deuce’s old lady. After a quick stop in the office to grab his gun, he stepped out into the daylight, lit a cigarette, and made his way to his pickup.

It was time to give his other career a little attention.


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