Lover Undercover

By: Samanthe Beck

Chapter One

There’s no way on God’s green earth I’m going to dance naked in front of a bunch of strangers.

Kylie Roberts’s own words came back to haunt her as she stood in the darkened stage wing at Deuces, the strip joint…er…gentlemen’s club, where her twin sister, Stacy, usually worked as a featured dancer.

Until she broke her leg, anyway.

Eyes closed, Kylie tried to block out the bone-jarring thump thump thump of the music and transcend to a calmer, more peaceful place in her mind. No luck. It was awful enough knowing she was about to step out on the stage in front of a crowd of leering men, peel off her clothes, and dance topless around a pole. Did every part of her black biker-chick costume have to inflict bodily punishment, too?

Her toes protested the restricting fit of her sister’s thigh-high leather boots with their four-inch heels. Beneath a belted leather jacket barely long enough to skim her crotch, a silver-studded bikini top offered absolutely no support and precious little coverage for her normally well-secured 34-Cs. She hardly noticed the intrusive elastic of the matching G-string, because her bikini area still stung from the ruthless waxing Stacy had administered that afternoon.

Only until Stacy’s leg heals, Kylie silently vowed, and only because they couldn’t pay the rent on their Hollywood apartment without the money her sister made at Deuces. True, Stacy was the one who insisted on living in Hollywood—one of the highest-rent districts in a city known for high rents, no less—but Kylie had gone along with the arrangement, even though her income as a yoga instructor barely covered a third of the rent.

Kylie adjusted her bikini top and ran through her options one last time. Picking up more yoga classes wouldn’t come close to covering the shortfall. Moving was out of the question. They couldn’t scrape together first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit, on a new place. Calling home for funds wouldn’t work, either. Their mom constituted the only other branch on the Roberts family tree, and even if Debbie Roberts had any extra money—which she didn’t—she wouldn’t send it to them. She’d tell her daughters to come home.

And on that particular point, Kylie and Stacy agreed one hundred percent. The only thing more unacceptable than being homeless in LA? Returning to their tiny, backward hometown of Two Trout, Tennessee, as the penniless failures all the naysayers predicted they’d be.

Of course, when they left home, neither of them knew Stacy’s road to fame and fortune as an actress and dancer would include a stint dancing topless at an upscale club along West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. And never in a billion years would Kylie have guessed her path toward building a successful yoga practice and opening her own studio would include posing as Stacy, dancing shifts at Deuces while her twin’s leg mended.

Kylie sighed. At least Stacy hadn’t injured her leg doing something reckless and irresponsible, as she was prone to do. She’d gotten hurt at work, when an inebriated customer had pulled her offstage for an instant lap dance. One ambulance ride and an X-ray later, Stacy had received her diagnosis—broken tibia. She’d be in a cast for six to eight weeks. Without even consulting Kylie, Stacy had phoned the club, told them she had a slight sprain, and would be ready to dance by the following Friday.

And now, here Kylie stood, about to step onto the same rough-and-tumble stage. Exhaling slowly, she wiped her sweaty palms on her thighs, belatedly recalling Stacy’s admonition not to touch her skin after she slicked up with body oil. Shoot, she thought, staring at the greasy sheen on her palms. How was she supposed to dance on a pole with slimy hands?

Panicking, she wiped her hands on the blackout curtain that shielded the backstage area. Then she peeked through and watched a tall redhead with gravity-defying double-Ds grab the pole at the end of the stage and lower her flossed butt over a ringside table so the men surrounding it could shove bills into her G-string.

Oh, God. Collecting tips signified the end of a performance. She was next. Her already nervous stomach churned like a washer on the spin cycle.

The redhead—Ginger, Kylie deduced, based on Stacy’s less-than-flattering descriptions of the other dancers—sidled over and stopped beside Kylie.

“Good crowd tonight,” Ginger said, waiting while a runner gathered her discarded garments from the stage. “The high rollers up front booked me for a lap dance. But don’t worry, Snowflake, there might be a few leftovers for you.”

The stagehand ran over with Ginger’s clothes, and Kylie let them pass. She didn’t care about leftovers. All she wanted to do was live through the next three and a half minutes. Over her thundering heartbeat, she heard the DJ ask the audience to give a big round of applause for Stacy.

The house lights lowered. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, trying to get beyond the light-headed sensation threatening to overtake her.

The music started—AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” She opened her eyes and stared down her only remaining choices. Titty bar or Two Trout?

She stepped onto the stage.

The spotlight blinded her, and for one hysterical second, she froze like an ill-prepared fifth-grader called to the front of the class. Then Stacy’s voice replayed in Kylie’s mind, like a high-pitched drill sergeant, coaching her through the routine exactly as they’d done all week.

Strut to the center of the stage. Bend over and roll your hips in a big, wide circle. Smile, for Christ’s sake. You don’t have to waste an ounce of charm on anyone backstage, but when you’re out in front of the customers, smile like you’re having the time of your life. Now, undo the belt, slide it free, and snap it.

The belt whipped through the air with a loud slapping sound. The audience went wild. She couldn’t see them because of the glare of the lights, but she heard them. They gathered at the end of the runway, where the pole waited. The. Pole.

Stacy called the pole dance a dramatic way to command the audience’s attention and maximize tips—in essence to wield power over her quarry. It just showed how different they were beneath their oh-so-similar facades. Kylie couldn’t think of anything less powerful than twirling around a pole half-naked, for money. Humiliating and terrifying, yes. Empowering? Not so much.

Borrowing from yoga, she centered herself in the present, letting go of useless worry about the next moments. She’d deal with them when they arrived.

The routine moved her gradually downstage, where the lights weren’t so glaring. She could make out the ringside tables now, all fully occupied by men. Short, tall, dark, light, apparently the appeal of a woman dancing naked spanned the diversity of ages and backgrounds.

Despite the packed house, her gaze snagged on one man. Double-take gorgeous in a tall, dark, and dangerous way, his broad-shouldered, athletic build gave him presence even in the crowded club. But it wasn’t his looks that caught her attention. It was his stillness. In a sea of drunk, rowdy guys, he was an island of cool, collected calmness. He exuded the same controlled energy she sought through yoga.

Dark, seen-it-all eyes locked on hers. Recognition—one observer to another. The other men looked at her, but this man saw her.

Her stomach quivered in reaction, and her thighs tensed. In the midst of fear and mortification came a strange shock of…excitement, followed quickly by shame. What kind of woman got excited about cavorting naked in front of a complete stranger, especially one who liked to spend his evenings in a club like Deuces? A sick woman, for sure, but humiliating as it was, she couldn’t deny the secret thrill as his eyes moved over her body.

No eye contact, she remembered Stacy warning. Stay focused on the dance.

Right. The dance. Unfortunately, she’d reached a part of the performance she dreaded almost as much as the pole.

Dance your way over to the edge of the stage, squat, and loop the belt around the nearest guy’s head. Pull his face between your knees and do as the song says…shake him all night long.

Wondering if it was possible to die of mortification, Kylie scanned her options. She considered the dark-eyed observer sitting alone at his table, but quickly abandoned the notion. She needed someone harmless. He did not qualify. Instead, she zeroed in on the front table, where a boisterous group of naughty-boy hedge-funders had spent the evening partying and throwing around money. In their midst sat a slightly drunk, clean-cut blond man in his mid-thirties. He stared at her like an eager puppy as she draped the belt around his neck and reeled him in. The room erupted in applause and catcalls. She dropped him back into his chair with a nudge of her boot to his chest.

Without permission, her attention wandered back to the dark-haired man. One of the guys at the hedge-funders’ table nudged him and made some comment. Without breaking eye contact, he slowly nodded.

Heat burned her cheeks. Edging away, she pushed her focus toward performing each move, and blocking out the embarrassment of twirling around the pole and stripping off her top.

By the end of the routine, Kylie spun over the crowd in nothing but boots and a G-string. The men at her feet went crazy, waving bills in the air.

Stacy’s coaching reverberated through her head. Okay, now it’s payday. Sink to your knees and do a slow, sexy crawl along the tip rail.

She did it, fighting the urge to jump up and run as strange hands tucked bills into her boots and G-string. Finally she rose, pivoted, and gave the audience a sassy wave—as if she loved prancing around nearly nude while men ogled her and shoved money in her underwear. As if she didn’t want to throw up, burst into tears, and take a hot shower…not necessarily in that order. Hands on hips, she pranced offstage.

The crowd’s enthusiastic applause told her she’d pulled it off—so to speak. She sagged against the wall, rolled her head to the side, and belatedly noticed the paper towel dispenser affixed to the wall. She did not want to know why they kept those there, but she grabbed a few towels and wiped the rest of the oil from her hands while she waited for her clothes. In less than a minute, the runner hustled over with her things, shoved them at her, and disappeared before she could mumble “thanks.”

One dance down, thirty-six to go. The grim thought chased her as she made her way to the dressing room. Please God, let Stacy get her cast off early.

She’d just retied her bikini top when the club’s manager shouldered his way into the narrow space. Vernon Firth resembled a bulldog, all droopy eyes and sagging jaw, and looked as incongruous as one amid the girlie clutter of the dressing room.

“Ari, get your ass to the stage,” he said to the only other dancer in the room.

The haughty Russian flounced out with her nose in the air. Kylie pulled the tips from her outfit and pretended not to watch Vern in the mirror as he waddled her way.

“You looked pretty good out there—little stiff maybe, but the customers didn’t seem to mind.”

She lifted an eyebrow and tried to emulate the patented Stacy Roberts confidence. “No?”

“Not so much. The big shots up front reserved you and Ginger for a pair of lap dances. She’s out there now. After Ari wraps up, you go do the second guy.”

Vern turned to leave, but when she didn’t move or reply he glanced back and gave her an impatient look. “Problem?”

“No. I’ll be right there.”

Apparently satisfied, he left.

With shaking hands she put her tips in her lockbox, tucked it in her locker, and took a deep breath. Okay. She could do this. Stacy had talked her through the ins and outs of a lap dance, and played the part of customer while Kylie practiced. Three minutes of gyrating over the guy’s lap. Flash her breasts at the end.

Her sister’s words of wisdom floated through her mind. Paste on a smile, say hello, and then ignore him and get on with the dance. Keep the chitchat to a minimum.

He couldn’t touch, except to tip her when it was over. Of course, if he found her dancing “uplifting,” Stacy had warned there might be some incidental contact. Because the thought made her cringe, she focused on the payoff. A lap dance put fifty bucks in her pocket.

“Hey, Snowflake, you’re on. I’ve warmed them up for you,” Ginger said as they passed on the floor.

Kylie eyed the front row. “Wait. Which one is mine?”

The redhead tossed her flaming mane behind her shoulders and pointed. “They wanted to surprise their new friend at the table next door. Enjoy.”

Ginger sauntered off, but Kylie barely noticed. Her gaze fixed on her client, the dark-haired man. Lord, anybody but him. How was she supposed to “ignore him and get on with the dance”? He commanded attention.

Before she could resolve the question, Ariana’s performance ended and the fringed gold curtain came down.

Showtime. Smiling so wide it hurt, she slunk toward her target, using the hip-rolling walk Stacy had taught her. The guys who’d booked the dance clapped as she approached, and a few surreptitious fingers pointed to the dark-haired man at the table beside them. She stopped in front of him and stared at his chin. A nice chin. Square. Maybe a little bit stubborn.

“Hi. I’m Stacy, and I have a surprise for you.”

She felt his eyes on hers but didn’t shift her gaze.

He smiled. Slow. Amused. It brought an endearing softness to the rugged angle of his jaw. “I think you’re looking for one of those gentlemen over there.”

His low, unhurried voice exuded testosterone. Keeping her smile in place, she shook her head. “No. They arranged for me to dance for you.”

Her client looked over at his benefactors. “Gee, thanks guys. You shouldn’t have.”

Moving closer, she reached around and grabbed the back of his chair. In the process, her fingers accidently ruffled thick, cashmere-soft hair, and she fought an urge to sink her hand into its mink-toned depths. Not good. “Ready?” she asked, still avoiding his eyes.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

Funny, she felt the same way. A tremble wanted to work its way up her spine when the DJ queued the music. She suppressed it and moved into position, straddling his lap. Her boots brushed against hard, muscular thighs. She dipped her hips toward the fly of his black pants, and leaned in until her bikini-straining breasts almost touched his chest.

His indrawn breath made her think he was checking out the view, but when she glanced at him, their gazes collided. She immediately dropped her eyes to his chest and concentrated on her moves.

A few moments into the proceedings, his husky voice endangered her focus. “Come here often?”

“Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, from ten ’til two.”

“Busy girl.”

“You have no idea. Heads up, handsome.”

“Trevor.”

“Sorry?”

“My name is Trevor.”

Alrighty, then. She braced her weight on one leg, swung the other over his head, then straddled his lap again, this time facing away from him. Hips low, she arched her back and insinuated her body over his in time to the music.

From the corner of her eye, she watched his attention drift to her butt, then scorch a trail of heat along her spine, across her shoulders, and surprisingly, to her face.

“Very limber.”

“Glad you’re enjoying the show, Trevor.”

“Absolutely. In fact, you need to lift up a little or…ah…”

Too late. She felt some of the “incidental contact” Stacy had warned of, and jerked away, almost losing her balance in the process. To cover the flub, she untied the bow at the back of her bikini, spun around, and flashed him. She settled above his lap again, giving him even more room this time, and crossed her arms over her breasts. Her eyes sought his.

“Nice save,” was all he said, but those intense eyes seemed to see right into her mind.

She gripped the chair with one hand, leaned back, and tossed her hair away from her face. When she came up, she fixed her smile firmly in place and stared resolutely at his chin. “Happens all the time.”

Her nonchalance fell short of convincing. “How long have you been dancing here?”

Two hours. “Two years.”

“Really?” He frowned, and she noticed an almost invisible, incongruously vulnerable white scar etched along the corner of his upper lip. “That surprises me. And not much surprises me.”

Now it was her turn to frown. “Don’t you like my dancing?”

“I love your dancing. I love it so much you better lift those amazing hips a little bit more.”

She complied. “We want to keep it legal.”

That earned her an odd look. “Always.”

Thankfully, the song ended, so she didn’t have to come up with a reply. She slowly drew away from him, keeping an arm over her breasts.

“Thank you for the dance.”

“I think that’s my line,” he replied, smiling at her, or himself, or the absurdity of having a barely clothed stranger shake her hips in the general vicinity of his lap.

The waitress arrived with another round for the other table. Kylie used the moment to retie her bikini and reinforce her wall of detachment. When the waitress moved away, the blond man lifted a fresh bottle of champagne and waved Kylie over. “Join us for a drink, gorgeous?”

Her eyes drifted back to Trevor. Inconceivably, part of her wanted to say yes, just so she could stay nearby. Which proved the sooner she got away from him, the better. “No, thank you. I don’t drink while I’m working.”

“Probably a good policy,” Trevor replied. He pressed a folded bill into her palm, and added, “Don’t work too hard, Stacy.”

No chance. Stacy isn’t working at all, she thought irritably. Outwardly, she brightened her smile and extended it to the adjoining table. “Enjoy your evening, gentlemen.”

C’mon boots, start walkin’.

Two table dances, one stage performance, and another lap dance later, she practically cried with relief to be done with those boots. Screaming arches and numb toes made walking to her car a challenge, even in her thick-soled flip-flops. She might have crawled if not for the witness.

One of the club’s bouncers accompanied her. Benny reminded Kylie of a big, blond tank—low forehead, lantern jaw, no discernible neck separating his head from the mountain of muscle comprising his body.

“You were real good tonight, Stacy.”

Benny’s IQ rivaled his biceps’ circumference, according to Stacy. It was an impressive number, for biceps. But he knew his job, followed instructions, and kept his hands to himself, so most of the girls liked him.

“Thanks, Benny. Busy night, huh?”

“Yeah. We’re always busy on a full moon Friday.”

Kylie tipped her head up. Sure enough, a huge, glowing orb hung in the sky. Had to give Benny credit for noticing. She would have overlooked it entirely.

“I guess you’re right.” They reached Stacy’s shiny yellow VW Bug. Kylie watched him scan the lot while she disengaged the lock and opened the door. She appreciated his vigilance, but wanted to move him along, so she got in and started the engine. He continued to stand by the car. Manners forced her to lower the window.

“Something else on your mind?”

“I saw Gary talking to you before your shift. He get outta line?”

Deuces’ smarmy, sandy-haired bartender had told her if her ankle started to bother her, he had a special therapy guaranteed to take her mind off everything below her G-spot. Stacy had warned her about Gary, calling him “obnoxious and always on the make.”

“Gary was Gary,” she replied diplomatically.

“Uh-huh. Let me know if he crosses the line. I’ll take it to Vern. Couple of the other girls complained about that guy’s mouth.”

“Thanks, Benny. That’s sweet of you, but not necessary.” Absolutely not. During her six-to-eight-week stint as Stacy, she didn’t intend to make any waves. “Thanks for walking me to my car.”

“See you tomorrow.”

Tomorrow. The thought brought a big, jagged lump to her throat. Six more weeks of this would kill her.

Halfway home her cell phone chimed. She dug it out of her bag, checked the caller ID, and immediately pulled over.

“What’s wrong?”

Stacy’s laugh flowed over the line. “Nothing’s wrong. I called to see how the night went.”

“I survived. I’ll be home in, like, ten minutes. Why don’t we talk then?”

“I’m not home. I’m at…what’s your name again, sweetie?”

Kylie saw red. “What do you mean, you’re not home? How’d you get anywhere? You can barely walk. You can’t drive. And even if you wanted to, I’ve got your car and your license.”

“And I’ve got yours.”

“Stacy!”

“Calm down. I didn’t drive. But I was bored out of my mind, so I hobbled down to BJ’s,” she answered blithely, mentioning the sports bar just a block away from their apartment. “That’s where I met my new friend. BJ’s closed, so now we’re at his place.”

“Stacy, you better be home by the time I get there. I mean it. You are not allowed to go out and…make friends while I dance your shifts.”

“Touchy, touchy. How much did you earn tonight?”

“Almost three hundred. Get home right now or I’m keeping it.”

Her sister whistled appreciatively and ignored the threat. “You had a good night. I knew those boots would make money.”

“We’ll need every penny for my orthopedic surgery. Those suckers are…oh, dang it.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I left them in the dressing room at the club.”

“Those are four-hundred-dollar boots. Go back and get them.”

“Four hundred dollars! No wonder you don’t have any savings. And no way am I driving back to Deuces. I’ll get them tomorrow night.”

“They’ll be long gone by then. The other dancers have sticky fingers. Please, Ky? If you go back right now, you’ll probably catch Vern.”

Kylie rested her head against the steering wheel. Shit. “Phone the club and tell them to wait.”

“I’ll call right now. Hurry!”

“I’m…hurrying,” she said to a dead line. Calling herself every kind of idiot, she drove back to Deuces. The club was dark by the time she pulled into the parking lot, but the full moon and the perimeter lights got her up the short flight of stairs to the back door. She tried the handle. Locked. Banging on the door produced no response.

A scraping noise from across the parking lot drew her attention. She squinted into the distance. Was there something, or someone, by the Dumpster?

Impossible to say, but one thing was suddenly all too clear. Hanging out alone behind a strip club at two thirty in the morning qualified as a bonehead move. She’d get the boots tomorrow. If they disappeared, too damn bad. Stacy could buy a new pair of boots. A sister would be tougher to replace. She ran down the steps and back to the car, flip-flops echoing like gunshots on the asphalt.

As she pulled away, her headlights washed over the back of the lot, bringing the Dumpster into view, as well as—oh, jeez—a prone figure on the pavement. It looked like a man, though his head was turned away from her.

A passed-out drunk? The unnatural angle of his body worried her. She slowed and honked. Not a twitch. A dark puddle of…liquid spread over the pavement around his head. Maybe the poor man had slipped, cut his head on the Dumpster, and knocked himself unconscious? Probably a barback from the club, taking out a load of empties.

She put the car in park and lowered the window. “Mister? Are you okay?”

Smart Kylie. If the horn didn’t rouse him, your voice should do the trick. Okay, okay, okay. Just go take a look. She got out and stood on wobbling legs, clutching her phone.

God, it smelled awful. Like a Dumpster and…something else.

“Mister,” she croaked, touching his shoulder. He didn’t respond. She gave him a little shake. Still nothing. Carefully, she stepped around him and crouched by his head.

“Sir?”

Vacant eyes stared at her from a battered, bloody face. She screamed, stumbled back, and slammed her skull into something solid. Stars exploded before her eyes. A hollow clanging rang in her ears. She screamed again, even as she realized she’d run into the Dumpster and not a bat-wielding thug. Biting back hysteria, she scrambled up.

Adrenaline flooded her system, jolting through her like an electrical current. She overshot vertical, landed on her knees, and clawed her way to the car, trying to outrun the vision of the man’s bruised, swollen face.

Not even a face anymore. Whoever he was, she didn’t recognize him. Nobody was going to recognize him. Ever again.

In the car she wasted several moments frantically searching for her phone before remembering she already had it in her hand. Dialing 9-1-1 took three tries. Finally an operator answered.

“Please,” she whispered, so breathless she sounded as if her lungs had sprung a leak. “Please send an ambulance. I think he’s… I think he’s…dead.”

Things moved dizzyingly fast from there.

A cavalry of cops and paramedics arrived within minutes. Lights flashed, radios crackled, uniforms moved in and out of her line of vision. Somehow she ended up sitting in the back of an ambulance, holding a bag of ice to her head, watching with dreamlike detachment while activity swirled around her. Tracking it made her eyes hurt, so her attention strayed to something stationary—the body. For someone who’d probably gasped his last breath alone in a parking lot, he had a lot of company now.

A couple of paramedics knelt beside him first. With a few frighteningly efficient touches, they pronounced him dead. Then the police moved in, displaying the same frightening efficiency. They taped off the scene, took pictures, asked questions.

She answered as best she could, but there wasn’t much to tell and she struggled to concentrate with all the buzzing in her ears. Did she recognize the man? No. Had she seen anyone else? No. Did she work at Deuces? She hesitated. Did she?

A deep, strangely familiar voice answered. “Yeah, she works at the club. She’s worked there two years.”

Kylie turned, and keen brown eyes captured her gaze. The same deep, all-seeing eyes she’d stared into during her very first lap dance.

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