White Knight

Scoundrels, Book 2

Mari Carr

Prologue

Travis Knight turned away from the two-way glass in his office, the performance on the stage no longer filling that empty place inside him. Tonight’s fantasy involved a harem girl captured by a dominant sheik. The talented actors—his best friends—had never failed to capture his attention and enflame his imagination, but tonight the show left him cold.

Dropping onto a chair, he rubbed a weary hand over his face, his gaze traveling from one end of the room to the next. His desk was an experiment in disorderly conduct, papers stacked high, covering every horizontal inch of oak surface on the antique. He’d acquired the desk at an auction, the overly large piece appealing to him at the time. It was a desk that spoke of power and purpose, two attributes he’d worked hard to maintain throughout his life. Like the piles of shit teetering precariously atop it, he suspected all his hard-won control was about to topple as well.

His gaze moved to the walls lined with bookshelves, overflowing with countless novels. An avid reader, Travis’ tastes ran the gamut from horror to poetry. Books—like the fetish fantasies enacted in his club—allowed him brief escapes from reality. Glancing at the table beside him, he studied the dust gathering on the cover of the last book he’d attempted to read. He hadn’t picked it up in weeks, the words failing to pull him out of his stupor, his depression.

Darkness had finally descended and Travis was helpless to hold it at bay. He was too fucking tired of the fight. Enough was enough. Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes and succumbed to it. Clenching his fists, he considered his next move. It was clear he couldn’t remain in this club, couldn’t escape the demons roaming the rooms.

Maybe he’d leave Scoundrels to Emma. Give it to her and Jack as an engagement gift. After all, they’d found each other on the stage below. He knew their happiness and love shouldn’t leave him with this ache in his gut, but he couldn’t shake it. It was selfishness, pure and simple. He could admit that shortcoming. It’s not like he was proud of it. He wasn’t. Even so, that didn’t make it go away.

His friends had discovered love after years of standing right in front of each other. Love had a funny way of showing up in moments when you least expected it. At least that’s what Emma said. Travis had never felt the emotion. Not once. He grimaced and rubbed his side. Fucking ache was back again. He was screwed up—no two ways about it. Thinking about love shouldn’t cause physical pangs. Jesus.

He likened himself to a gentleman soldier, wounded and home from war. He could picture himself, scarred from too many battles, hardened by killing and bloodshed. He’d lock himself away in a dreary, cold manor, letting the chill and dampness settle into his bones as he waited for death to claim him. He’d shut himself away from the balls, the ton, the matchmaking grande dames, keeping everyone at arm’s length to live out the rest of his days in misery.

The absurd daydream faded. It was Emma’s fault. She’d given him a Regency romance novel for his birthday as a gag gift, claiming he needed a few lessons in chivalry and true love. In a fit of boredom, he’d actually read the fucking book cover to cover. Now he was addicted to the things—read them voraciously—and had taken to daydreaming in historical times. As if he wasn’t crazy enough…

Reaching beside him, he picked up the glass of whiskey he’d poured earlier and downed it in one long drink. Slowly he breathed in and out, waiting for the booze to take off the edge. When it failed to take effect, he reached for the bottle and poured another glass. And then another. And another. Only when the tumbler fell from his hand, bouncing on the plush carpet without breaking, did he feel the numb peace take over.

The club had long since closed, the office illuminated only by the flickering security screens that showed him an empty bar, a dark stage, quiet nothingness.

Always nothing. His eyes drifted shut on that thought and he felt the chill of his Regency manor prison form once more.

Nothing.

I have nothing.

I am nothing.

Chapter 1

Three months later

Shea Landon finished clearing up the last of the dirty glasses after the fetish show. She glanced toward the stage, remembering exactly what she’d witnessed there only a few hours earlier. She felt her face—and her body—flush, a purely ridiculous reaction given her upbringing. Still, there was something about the show that had sparked a definite thread of arousal.

Her new boss, Emma, had been the night’s star, performing with her incredibly handsome fiancé, Jack. When she’d interviewed for the waitress job at the club, Shea never could have imagined the no-nonsense, all-business woman who ran Scoundrels, in the provocative schoolgirl outfit, bent over a desk getting her ass spanked. It was shocking to see Emma in that light. However, the whole act, while not a personal fetish for Shea, had been hot.

“So how was your first night?”

Shea found Emma smiling at her, back in business mode and attire. “Fine,” Shea said, wishing she weren’t blushing.

“I wanted to tell you that you did a great job tonight. You saved me, Shea.” Emma grinned at her. “So, what did you think of the show?”

“Well, it was,” she paused, trying to find the right word, “erotic.”

Her new boss nodded. “I should have warned you I’d be one of the performers but it completely slipped my mind. After the whole Bethany drama and hiring you so quickly, I’m afraid I’d almost forgotten it was my night to star in the show.”

Shea knew Emma was annoyed with her previous waitress for deciding to elope with her boyfriend and move to San Diego. Ordinarily losing one waitress wouldn’t have been so detrimental, but her defection had coincided with the absences of two more waitresses. Emma had been left with no one to call in and forced to hire someone on short notice.

Lucky for Shea. Her money had officially run out yesterday. Landing the job at Scoundrels was the answer to a prayer.

“Can I ask a favor?”

Shea nodded. At this point, there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for the woman standing between her and starvation. “Of course.”

“How are your hospital corners?” Emma asked.

“Pardon?”

Emma gestured toward the stage. “Bethany always changed the sheets after each night’s performance. She may have been flighty and impulsive, but she made one hell of a bed.”

“It just so happens I was a hotel maid in a former life. Where are the clean sheets?”

After spanking his naughty student, Jack had swept Emma to a bed positioned on the opposite side of the stage, where the two pretended to have sex. Shea decided—with a fair amount of depression—that their fake sex was hotter than any real sex she had ever had.

Emma led her backstage, showing her the hutch where the linens were stored. She also pointed out the laundry bin where the dirty sheets could be tossed. Along the way, Emma gave her a quick tour, something there hadn’t been time for after her whirlwind hiring and training session this afternoon.

Emma nodded to the mirrored glass above the stage. “And that’s the lion’s den. Only venture there under extreme caution.”

“Lion?”

Emma winked good-naturedly. “I’m kidding. Travis Knight owns the club. His office is behind that glass.”

“Oh.” Shea lowered her voice. “Is he mean or something?”

Emma laughed. “God no. His bark is worse than his bite. Although lately he’s been taking some nips. Not sure what’s gotten in to him.”

“Does he come to the club often?” She worried that the owner would take exception to her super-fast hiring.

Emma shook her head. “No. I can’t tell you the last time I’ve actually seen him down here on the floor. He stays locked up in his office most of the day, taking off right after the show.”

Shea sighed a breath of relief. An absent owner was fine with her.

“Well, as soon as you change the sheets you’re free to go. I’ve finished all my chores, so I’m about to take off. Bill the bartender is always the last one out. He’ll lock up. Did you drive?”

Shea shook her head. She couldn’t afford to take the bus, let alone own a car. “No, I walked.”

“Oh, do you want a ride home then?”

Shea panicked. She was currently homeless, but she didn’t want Emma to find out. If she’d earned enough tips, she could get a room in the shitty hotel she’d stayed in upon arriving in L.A. last week. “No, I’m very close. Another reason why I was so excited to get this job.”

Emma nodded. “Sounds like the whole deal is a win-win for both of us. You get a job close to home and I get a wonderful waitress.”

“Thanks, Emma. For everything.”

“I’m the one who should be thanking you.” Emma sighed, sounding very tired. “Mercifully, tomorrow is Saturday.”

“Don’t we still have to work on Saturdays?”

“Oh yeah, but I don’t keep office hours on the weekend.”

“Office hours?” Shea asked.

“Jack swears I have the schedule of a vampire. The club is open until two a.m. Tuesday through Saturday. During the week, I come in at noon to deal with paperwork and stuff like that. Saturdays I don’t do that. Give myself a few extra hours to relax.”

“So your weekend is really Sunday and Monday.”

“Exactly. Same will hold true for you too. Hope you’re not in love with Saturday.”

Shea reached into the hutch, pulling out fresh sheets. “No. Not at all.”

“The chef and I will show up around three tomorrow, but I don’t need you here until four. We open for dinner at five and the performance takes place at ten, followed by the dance-’til-you-drop routine.” Emma reached into her pocket. “This is my cell phone number in case you need to get in touch with me for some reason.”

Shea took the business card and tucked it in her pocket.

Emma stifled a yawn and Shea struggled not to mimic the action. She was dead on her feet, but she refused to let Emma see how tired she was.

“Damn. I’m beat. I’ll see you tomorrow, Shea.”

“Night, Emma.”

Shea walked to the stage and slowly stripped the sheets from the bed. As she flipped out the new ones, tucking the fitted sheet around the mattress, she resisted the urge to lie down and close her eyes. She tried to batten down the anxiety that had been eating at her all night. She had nowhere to go. It had taken her longer to find a job than she’d anticipated and she’d used up the lousy few hundred dollars she’d traveled to L.A. with.

Once the bed was made, she sat down on the edge of it, sinking into the mattress and almost groaning. She’d never felt a softer, more comfortable bed in her life.

Pulling out her tips for the night, Shea counted the money. She had a little over two hundred dollars. She sighed with relief, so happy to have money in her hands. It was enough for a room at the fleabag motel—as she liked to call the crummy place she’d been staying—and some food. Unfortunately it was two a.m. and she didn’t like the idea of venturing into East Hollywood so late. While she was desperate for a roof over her head, especially after spending last night dozing in a Laundromat chair, she wasn’t stupid enough to put herself in danger.

She rubbed her eyes wearily, too tired to think. She couldn’t keep trying to exist from day to day. When she’d come to L.A., she’d had a plan, a goal. She looked one last time at the comfortable bed, wishing she could lay her head on the pristine white pillow. Then she stood up and headed back to the bar.

“How you doin’, kid?” Bill asked.

Shea had instantly liked the bartender. He was a gruff-looking man—ex-Marine, according to Emma—in his mid-forties. He was quick to laugh and just as quick to eviscerate rude drunks. As long as patrons behaved at his bar, all was well.

“Fine. I finished cleaning in the theater.”

“Great. The other gals took care of the dance floor area and the bar. I’m just about to finish a few things. You mind checking the bathrooms for me one last time? Make sure there aren’t any drunks curled up in the corner and the lights are off.”

She grinned. “I don’t mind. I’ll do it before I head out.” The back door to the club led to a parking lot. Shea recalled seeing an all-night diner across the street from the lot. Maybe she could have a cup of coffee there, caffeine up and try to figure out her next move. If she could remain awake until daybreak, she could hit the subway with the commuters and head back to the cheap motel to catch a few hours of sleep on the lumpy mattress.

“Oh hey. Here’s your bag.”

She’d asked Bill to stow her duffel behind the bar. She was ashamed to say everything she owned in the world was in that bag. He’d remarked on the size of it when she’d come to work, but mercifully hadn’t questioned her. “See you tomorrow, Shea.”

She took the bag and hitched it onto her arm. “Good night, Bill.”

Walking down the hallway, she heard Bill humming as he worked. She opened the door to the men’s room, peering inside. The place was empty. Switching the lights off, she crossed the hall to the women’s bathroom. It was also deserted.

She recalled the bed on stage…the clean sheets, the soft mattress.

An idea formed. A terribly stupid idea.

Glancing back toward the bar, she noticed Bill had gone to the kitchen. She took a deep breath for courage—then walked into the bathroom and turned off the lights.

The room was plunged into darkness and her heart began to race. Her earlier exhaustion gave way to nervousness and fear. What the hell was she doing?

Feeling her way across the room, she let herself into the stall farthest from the door. Sitting down on the toilet, she waited in silence. Too many minutes later, she heard the sound she’d been dreading and anticipating. She lifted her feet and sat frozen. The back door opened then closed. She heard a lock being thrown into place.

Shea remained where she was for fifteen minutes longer then lowered her feet and stood.

She’d done it. She was locked in the club. Christ, she was insane. She’d just gotten the job and with one foolish, rash act, she’d probably jeopardized it.

Reaching into her bag, she pulled out her mini-flashlight. Switching it on, she pulled off the white blouse and black mini Emma had supplied her with earlier. She didn’t want to wrinkle the material since she’d have to wear it again tomorrow and she certainly didn’t have an iron.

She pulled on a t-shirt and loose sleep shorts, brushed her teeth then left the bathroom, walking toward the stage, grabbing a blanket from the hutch along the way. If she was going to lose her job, she’d at least make it worth her while. When she reached the bed, she slipped off her shoes and lay down. She covered herself with the simple blanket but didn’t dare crawl between the sheets, already feeling guilty for taking advantage of Emma’s kindness. She took out her small travel alarm clock and set it for eleven. She prayed no one found her. Maybe after a good night’s sleep, she’d be smarter, be able to figure out what the hell she should do next. For tonight, she was too tired and the bed was too soft.

* * * *

Travis watched his new waitress curl up on the bed and fall asleep. He had watched her all night as she’d worked. Emma had stopped by after the show to tell him how impressed she was with the new girl’s waitressing abilities.

He didn’t give a damn about her drink-slinging talents. Travis had been fascinated by her face. She was pretty, but it was the look of determination and—for lack of a better word—hunger that caught his eye. He recognized the exhaustion, the desperation and fear written there. He’d come to know those emotions well. He also felt a definite attraction. That would come as a surprise to Emma, who often accused him of taking the California-girls dream too far. He typically surrounded himself with tall, slim, suntanned blondes. Shea, with her dark hair, pale complexion and curvaceous body, didn’t fit that bill.

He’d watched her walk into the women’s room on one of the security monitors and been surprised when she didn’t come back out. After Bill locked up, he’d waited patiently. She didn’t disappoint him. Travis watched her sneak out with flashlight in hand. He picked up his phone, ready to call the police. However, her attire confused him and he paused. She appeared to be dressed in pajamas.

When she walked to the stage and lay down on the bed, he rose, watching her through the two-way glass. That was when he realized her goal wasn’t robbery, it was rest.

He stood watching her for nearly half an hour. Once he decided the exhausted girl was deeply asleep, he quietly crept down the stairs at the back of the stage. Shedding his shoes at the foot of the staircase, he padded across the stage until he stood next to her. Dim lighting from his open office door illuminated her face.

Shea Landon. Emma had told Travis her name. While he was typically absent from the main parts of the club, there was very little that happened in the place he didn’t know about.

He was curious about the petite woman. Reaching down, he picked up her duffel bag, retrieving the mini-flashlight she’d used earlier. He didn’t feel guilty about searching her stuff. After all, the woman was squatting in his club. Best to make sure she didn’t have a weapon.

Her bag didn’t answer his questions. If anything, it added more. There were several changes of clothing, some toiletries, a wallet and four books—all of them reminding him of the romance novels he’d been reading lately. Who the hell was this woman?

He replaced her things and put the duffel back on the floor. Shea rolled over and curled into a ball, nearly losing her blanket in the process. Travis slowly and carefully pulled the blanket up until it once more covered his sleeping waitress.

He was losing his mind. If he had half a brain, he’d wake her and fire her ass. Shea mumbled something incoherent and he grinned.

“You’re going to be trouble, aren’t you?” he whispered.

She sighed, but didn’t stir.

Fuck it. He wasn’t going to fire her. Where was the fun in that?

He climbed the stairs to his office, shutting the door. Usually he headed to his apartment but he didn’t want to leave Shea alone. Grabbing a blanket from the chair, he lay down on the couch. For the first time in a long time, he actually felt sleepy, his usual insomnia remaining at bay. His last thought before he drifted to sleep was of Shea. He didn’t know who she was, but she’d done something no one had done in a very long time.

Surprised him.

* * * *

The waves crashing on the shore pulled him from his restless slumber. Lord Travis Knight had been home nearly six months and the sea still tormented him. The sounds that had comforted him throughout his childhood were now threatening, reminding him too much of the terror he’d barely escaped when the war with Napoleon finally ended, the cursed emperor at last exiled to Elba. May he rot in hell there.

Travis had never feared the ocean before, but now the thunderous roar reminded him of the sound of a thousand horses’ hooves, hammering out a deadly beat as they approached. Death following behind with her arm raised, sword in hand, recklessly taking lives without thought, without care.

He stroked the long scar on his left cheek, recalling how closely Death had come to claiming him. Sometimes in the midst of a cold, dark night, he quietly prayed to her, begging her to finish the job.

A loud banging at the door disturbed the perpetual silence that permeated every crack and crevice of his home. He’d lost his parents to a fever while at war. They’d left him to wear an ancient, unwanted title, alone in this musty old mausoleum.

The knocking at the door continued. Finnegan would answer it and send the usurper on his way. Travis lay back on his bed and sighed heavily as he faced the beginning of yet another endless day.

“Milord?”

Travis glanced toward the door as Finnegan opened it and entered. The man had served under Travis’ command in the regiment. It was Finnegan who had saved his life on the battlefield, delivering him home and tending to his wounds. After Travis recovered, Finny stayed on, taking on the role of butler, valet and jack-of-all-trades.

“What?” Travis let his annoyance show.

“You have a visitor, sir.”

Travis raised his eyebrow, equal parts anger and surprise. “I don’t see callers. You know that. Send whoever it is on their way.”

When Finny didn’t leave the room, Travis stared, frowning at the unflappable old warhorse as he fidgeted, ill at ease.

Finny cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I tole her you don’t see no one, but—”

“Her?”

“Lady Landon, from the estate next door.”

Travis groaned. It seemed his reprieve was over. The only reason he’d been spared so long was because Shea had been in London for the season when he returned home. She’d stayed in the city longer after her mother had taken ill and needed care. It appeared the elder Lady Landon had recovered well enough to make the trip home at last.

Travis dressed quickly, not bothering to check his appearance in the mirror. Shea was certain to find fault with it regardless.

Finny directed him to the parlor where she was waiting.

Travis paused at the door, mentally preparing himself. Shea Landon was his oldest friend in the world, the two of them having grown up together. She was also a bluestocking, far too outspoken and opinionated for his peace of mind.

Conversations with Shea often left him off guard. She knew him too well and he feared she’d make him a project if she saw how far he’d fallen. He was content to wallow in misery and he didn’t need Shea trying to change that state.

Shea glanced up at his entrance. It had been years since he’d seen her, but somehow he didn’t recall her looking quite so…beautiful before. She crossed the room, hugging him tightly.

Her scent was familiar, reminding him of far happier times.

She pulled away to look at him and shook her head. “You look dreadful.”

He nodded, not offended by her observation. He and Shea didn’t mince words and they didn’t lie to one another. “And you look lovely.”

She smiled but he sensed a sadness in her eyes he’d never seen before.

She raised her hand, lightly tracing his scar with her fingertips. “I was terribly worried about you.”

Travis grasped her wrist and gently pulled it away from his face. “As you can see, I am well.”

She nodded. “Yes. I see.”

Her tone told him just how much she saw. He needed to distract her. “You’re home to stay, I assume?”

“Yes, Mother is feeling much better.”

He crossed the room, sitting behind his large desk. He felt the overpowering need to place some distance between them. “I’m glad to hear that. I appreciate the social call, Shea, but I’m afraid I have a great deal to—”

“Oh, this isn’t a social visit. I’m here to offer you a business proposition.”

Travis reared back in his chair, surprised. “Business?”

Shea nodded. “I’ve endured my fifth season in London. I think it’s safe to say I am officially on the shelf.”

“I don’t agree.” There was a new radiance about her he’d never seen before. Surely other gentlemen of the ton must see it.

She gave him an appreciative smile that said she didn’t believe him. “It’s neither here nor there. I have no desire to enter the parson’s mousetrap with any of those fops. Unfortunately, there are rules in society associated with unwed women. I’m feeling constrained by them.”

“Constrained by what rules?” He was a fool for asking the question. Shea was the only person in the world who could surprise him and she did it on a regular basis. Her mind worked in ways he couldn’t begin to fathom or understand. All he knew was she had a plan and he was in trouble.

“I want to learn about pleasures of the flesh. Sex. And I want you to teach me.”

Travis sighed. Trouble indeed.

Chapter 2

Shea stepped carefully onto the toilet seat and lifted the ceiling tile above the stall in the club’s bathroom. She’d begun hiding her duffel bag there when she took up temporary residence at the club.

After spending her first night in the bar, she’d continued to sleep there every night for the past eight evenings. Shea had never slept on such a soft bed. She’d been reluctant to return to the motel in East Hollywood. Hiding out in all-night diners or Laundromats after work until she dared to return to the dangerous area wasn’t something she could keep up without dropping into exhaustion.

Actually, the club made an ideal impromptu home. There was a small shower stall in a bathroom backstage for the performers, so bathing was easy. She simply rose each morning, took a quick shower, ate a granola bar for breakfast then read her book until it was time for Emma to arrive. Due to the club’s security system, she had to do some clever maneuvering, hiding in the storeroom until Emma arrived at work and disengaged the alarm. Once Emma was ensconced in her office, Shea snuck out the back door, roaming around the neighborhood, eating a quick lunch or doing laundry until it was time to return for work.

Pulling out her wallet, she placed the evening’s tips in the pouch, relishing the growing thickness of the wad of money. Hopefully in a couple more weeks, she’d have enough tips saved for a deposit on an apartment. Scoundrels was positioned in the center of high-priced downtown L.A. She’d use up every bit of her money if she stayed in one of the ritzy hotels in this area. She simply had to avoid being caught for a little while longer. Guilt tweaked her conscience for abusing Emma’s kindness, but she couldn’t come up with a better way of saving money and achieving her goals.

She’d written a list of plans for the future while on the bus from Vegas. She’d accomplished the first—get a job. Now she was working toward the second—get an apartment. By saving her money, rather than blowing it on hotel rooms, she was that much closer to her third and main goal. Once she was established in L.A., she intended to save enough to go to college to study business. Someday, she’d find a way to pay Emma back for the few weeks of safe lodging in the nightclub.

Shea returned the bag to its hiding spot and stepped down carefully. She wiped her nose before washing her hands, silently attempting to will away a coming head cold. Gazing at the mirror, she realized she looked like shit. Her eyes were watering and puffy, her nose red.

I can’t get sick. I can’t get sick.

Unlocking the bathroom door, she stepped out into the hallway, checking her watch. It was midnight. If she could make it two more hours, she could crawl into her comfy bed onstage and sleep. Surely all she needed was rest to get rid of the woozy feeling in her head.

She sneezed.

“Uh oh.” Emma appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “You feel all right, Shea?”

“I’m fine. Um, allergies,” she lied.

“It’s not allergy season. You sure you’re okay?”

Emma’s concern for her well-being helped ease some of Shea’s loneliness. “Really. I’m fine,” she repeated, her hoarse voice betraying her.

Emma studied her face. “No. I don’t think you are. Tell you what. Finish up those last two tables in the theater and I’ll have Jenny cover your area in the dance club section. I think you should head home early.”

Shea panicked. “Oh no, I’m fine, Emma. Really. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Shea. I can’t have you waiting tables, sniffling and sneezing all over the patrons. Trust me, this is better for both of us. You need to go home and rest.”

Shea tried to think of another argument but her head felt full and fuzzy. She was definitely getting sick. Shit. “Okay.”

She slowly finished serving the final tables in the theater. Usually after a fetish show performance, the crowd split into two groups—those who remained to drink and chat at the comfortable tables and those who headed to the dance floor on the other side of the bar. Tonight, the theater crowd had cleared out earlier than usual. She had to give props to Emma and Mr. Knight for their creativity in the designing and management of Scoundrels. It offered something for everyone.

Pocketing the last two tips, she wiped the tables and glanced at the mirror above the stage. Shea still hadn’t seen the mysterious Mr. Knight and she’d become increasingly curious about him. Emma confided that they’d gone to school together, so she knew he was in his mid-thirties. Other than that, and the fact he never came out of his office, she knew little else.

Emma walked toward her. “There you are. Good lord, Shea. I told you to go home.”

She’d hoped she could stall. “I was just about to head out.”

Emma began to walk with her and Shea groggily panicked. Much as it hurt her to do it, she was going to have to dip into her savings and get a hotel room for the night.

“Here.” Emma handed her a bag of cough drops. “Zinc. It’s supposed to help ward off colds. Lucky for you, it’s Saturday. You’ll have two days to rest and relax before having to worry about work again.”

Shit! It was the weekend. Shea’s pile of money shrunk even more as now she’d be forced to get a room for three nights.

“I need to pop into the bathroom and then I’ll be on my way.” Hopefully Emma would be gone by the time she came out and wouldn’t spot her carrying a duffel bag she hadn’t walked in with.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to wait on the bathroom until you get home. Damn toilet is clogged. I’ve got Raoul in there working on it.”

Shea stumbled slightly.

“Wow, you really aren’t feeling well, are you? Didn’t you wear a coat?”

Shea shook her head. She didn’t own one.

“Well, if you hurry, you may make it home before that rain starts.”

Emma opened the back door to the club and Shea stepped out into the damp, chilly night. She had twenty bucks in her pocket, none of her stuff and three long nights ahead of her. What was she supposed to do now?

* * * *

Travis checked the security monitors again but still couldn’t find Shea. He’d been keeping an eye on her as he worked on the club receipts. Watching her had become his latest pastime. Every night for eight nights, he’d observed her routine, entertained by her ingenuity in hiding her belongings and eking out an existence in his club without disturbing anything that wasn’t hers.

She’d stealthily slip into the bathroom after saying goodbye to Bill, hiding until the coast was clear. The first few nights she’d remained in hiding for nearly thirty minutes, but with each progressive evening she was becoming braver, emerging earlier, always dressed in her pajamas. Using her flashlight, she’d read her romance novels until she fell asleep.

Since her arrival, Travis hadn’t spent a single night in his apartment, instead opting to watch Shea.

Shortly after one, he realized she wasn’t working her usual tables. Now it was closing time and she still wasn’t here. Travis picked up his cell phone and called Emma.

“Yes,” she said, using her standard Travis tone. They’d been friends for far too many years and their relationship had somewhere evolved into something more closely resembling siblings. They didn’t mince words.

“Where’s the new waitress?”

“She was sick. I sent her home early.”

“Home?” Travis immediately felt a shard of panic.

“Yes. I know it’s not a familiar concept for you, but typically it has four walls, a roof, pictures of smiling people and food in the refrigerator.”

“Jack’s a lucky man,” he deadpanned.

“I know. I have work to do. Nighty-night.”

He hung up. Where the hell could Shea have gone? She clearly didn’t have a home to go to. He watched the monitors carefully, ticking off the twenty minutes after Bill’s departure, hoping she would emerge from the bathroom, that she’d found a way to hide herself.

When she didn’t appear, his anxiety took over. Glancing toward the window, he saw a flash of lightning pierce the sky followed by a loud boom of thunder. The rain had started as a drizzle but now a full-fledged storm was in effect.

Shea was out in that. And she was sick.

Grabbing his raincoat and an umbrella, he cursed himself for a fool, wondering where in the hell he’d begin his search. All he knew was he needed to find her. Needed to know she was safe.

Stepping out into the driving rain, he crossed the parking lot to the street. He looked both ways, studying the signs, hoping for a clue. Glancing directly across from him, he spotted the diner. And Shea sitting in a booth by the window.

He sighed in relief. That didn’t take long.

As he walked into the diner, he immediately noticed her damp clothing clinging to her shivering body. He suspected she’d been waiting in the rain, hoping for a chance to get back into the club before it closed. Her trembling hands were wrapped tightly around a coffee cup. She coughed and Travis frowned at the deep, congested sound.

He took a seat at the table next to her booth. “Lousy night.”

She looked up at his voice. Besides the waitress, they were the only two people in the place. Once she determined he was talking to her, she smiled slightly and nodded.

He gestured to her wet clothing. “Looks like you got caught in the storm.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Forgot my umbrella.”

The waitress interrupted. He ordered coffee. While the woman went to get his drink, he looked at Shea. “You had dinner yet?”

She shook her head, though he spotted the suspicion in her gaze. He suppressed a grimace. He must look like king of the losers, trying to pick her up in a diner. Screw it. By the end of this night, she was going to know exactly who he was. “I was about to order a sandwich. You want to join me? My treat.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t. We don’t even know each other.”

He could tell she was hungry. From what he’d observed, she lived on cereal bars and peanut butter sandwiches. She was painfully thin and he ached to change that.

“I’m Travis, the only other person in L.A. crazy enough to be out on a night like this.”

“I’m Shea.”

He picked up his menu and slid into the seat across from her. “Nice to meet you.” He handed her the menu. “And despite the fact I did just say I was crazy, I can assure you I’m harmless. Mostly.”

She took the menu from him but didn’t look at it. “I’m not really hungry, but thanks for the offer.”

Now that he was closer, he could see the dark circles under her eyes, made more prominent by her pale skin. She was definitely sick.

“If you don’t mind me asking, you don’t look like you feel well. Shouldn’t you be home rather than out on a rainy night?”

She closed her eyes and sighed sadly. “I’m, um, staying with a friend. I accidentally got locked out and I don’t have a key.”

Her comment wasn’t too far from the truth. “Staying with a friend? So you’re here on vacation?”

She shook her head. “No, I just moved here. I haven’t had a chance to find my own place yet.”

The waitress delivered his coffee and topped up Shea’s. “You two want anything to eat?”

Travis shook his head, revising his previous plan. She wasn’t well enough to eat. He intended to get her back to the club as soon as possible. First he needed to gain her trust. If he told her who he was too soon, she was likely to run off.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Vegas.”

He lifted his coffee cup and Shea raised her hand in warning.

“That coffee’s terrible,” she confided quietly.

He took a cautious sip. It was strong as shit and thick as paste. Just the way he liked it. Putting the cup back down, he grinned. “It’s okay. At least it’s hot.”

She crinkled her nose. Clearly she didn’t think that fact redeemed it.

“What brings you from Vegas to L.A.?”

“I needed a fresh start.”

It was an innocuous answer and fired a whole list of new questions in his mind. “Sounds dire. What happened in Vegas?”

She laughed softly. “Given the city’s motto, I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say.”

“Has to stay there, right?” he joked.

She stifled a yawn. She was worn out. He watched her rub her eyes, battling to remain awake. He was overcome by the urge to bundle her up and drag her back to the club.

“Were you born in Vegas?”

She nodded. “Yep. I’m the embodiment of a bad Vegas cliché. Daughter of a stripper.”

“And your father?”

She raised her eyebrow. “Really? I need to answer that? I have no idea who my father is. Not sure my mother knows either.”

There was no anger in her response. In fact, he thought he saw a glimmer of humor there. “Wow, cliché in every sense of the word.”

“In so many ways, it’s not even funny.”

“I take it you didn’t follow in Mom’s footsteps?”

She grimaced. “Hell no. I’m never taking my clothes off for money.”

Travis cleared his throat uncomfortably, considering all the times he’d offered women cash to masturbate in front of him for his pleasure. Hell, he made his living from a club that enticed the audience with bare skin and fake sex.

“I waited tables in Vegas for a few years after high school. Started living with this guy I was dating. Life was okay for a while, I guess. One night I came home from work. My boyfriend had lost yet another job and was drunk off his ass. I lost my temper. He lost his and he hit me. After he passed out, I realized I was about a million miles from where I wanted to be.”

Travis clenched his fists, wishing her asshole boyfriend was around right now. “What did you do?”

“I cleaned out my bank account, threw a few things in a bag and bought the cheapest bus ticket out of town.”

“Los Angeles?”

She nodded. “There are worse places to end up.”

“When you say fresh start, you mean fresh start.”

She smiled, wincing slightly, but the effort seemed to cause her pain. She rubbed her temples wearily and he assumed she was suffering from a headache. “Yeah. It was probably impulsive and dumb, but I don’t regret it.”

“Even now? When you’re sitting in wet clothes in a diner in the middle of the night because you’re locked out of the club?”

She looked at him, her gaze suddenly suspicious. “What?”

He stood slowly. “Come on, Shea. I’m taking you home.”

Her face completed the transformation from shock to sheer panic in less than a second. “I told you. I’m locked out.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a key ring. “And I have the key that will get you back into Scoundrels. Let’s go before you shake yourself out of that booth. Your chills are getting worse.”

“Who are you?”

“Travis Knight.”

He didn’t think it possible, but Shea managed to go three shades paler. “You are?”

He pulled out his wallet and showed her his driver’s license. “Yep.”

“You know,” she whispered.

He reached down and helped her rise. Taking off his raincoat, he placed it around her shoulders. “I know.”

He threw a few dollars on the table then took her hand and walked to the club. The rain had abated but left bitterly cold air in its wake. Travis led her through the back door. Turning on the lights, he stopped at the door to the women’s bathroom.

Shea had been absolutely silent throughout their walk. He suspected if she’d felt better, she would have run away, given him a chase.

“Is your stuff in here?”

She nodded, taking the lead as they entered the restroom. He watched her retrieve her bag. Walking to the sink, she placed the duffel down, rummaging around. He wasn’t sure what she was looking for but was surprised when she pulled out her wallet, drawing out a thick stack of bills.

She tried to hand him the money. “Here. This is all the money I earned in tips. I’m very sorry for abusing your trust. Staying here was wrong. I knew that, but I still did it. I swear I won’t bother you again. I hope you’ll tell Emma how sorry I am.”

He scowled. “Put that damn money away. It’s yours. You earned it.”

“I couldn’t—”

“Goddamn it, Shea.” He took the money she continued to thrust at him and shoved it in her wallet. Picking up the bag, he grasped her hand once more. “Come on.”

She started toward the back door when they exited the restroom, but he shook his head and dragged her to the stage. Her hand began to shake and he felt her resisting him.

“Oh God. Please don’t call the police. I didn’t steal anything. Honest. I—”

He stopped and looked at her. “I’m not calling the cops.”

“I don’t understand.”

He pushed her toward the bed. “You’re sick, Shea, so I’ll say what you don’t seem to be figuring out. I’m not firing you and I’m not calling the cops.”

He tossed her duffel on the floor by the bed and pulled the raincoat off her shoulders. He turned his back to her, staring at the back wall of the stage.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I thought you might want to take off those wet clothes and put on your pajamas. I’m being a gentleman and not watching.”

“I should leave.”

He twisted to face her once more. “You’re shivering. You’ve caught a nasty chill and it’ll be a miracle if you don’t wind up with pneumonia. I’m giving you five minutes to put your pajamas on and get in that bed or I’ll do it for you.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Angel, I work in a sex club. Believe me, you don’t have anything I haven’t seen a million times before. What’s it going to be?”

“Turn around.”

He resumed his previous position, facing away from her. He listened to her progress for several minutes before she softly said, “Okay.”

He faced her and his breath caught. His assurances had been a lie. He’d seen countless women in various states of undress, but none of them held a candle to Shea Landon in her far-too-practical, not-the-least-bit revealing pajamas. She was a petite thing, the top of her head barely coming to his shoulders. Her pencil-thin shape told him she hadn’t had a proper meal in far too long. He’d take care of that issue in the morning.

For now, he needed to get her warm. There was a blue tinge around her lips and her trembling grew worse by the minute. Drawing down the sheets and comforter on the bed, he instructed her to get in.

The moment her body hit the mattress, it seemed to give out. It was then he realized how weak her illness had made her and how strong her will was. She’d remained on her feet this long by sheer, unshakable determination.

“Wait here.”

He quickly ran up to his office for some medicine. He kept Nyquil on hand, less for the cold relief and more for the sleep aid.

When he returned, he found her trying to set the alarm on her little travel clock. “What are you doing?”

“I need to g-get up b-before eleven. That’s when the cleaning lady c-comes in.”

He’d watched her cleverly dodge the cleaning lady last Sunday, amused by her secret-agent-style maneuvering. She’d spent nearly three hours hiding in the costume closet while the other woman worked. He’d been amused when she’d reemerged looking as if she’d just awoken from a nap—then touched up a few places around the club she clearly didn’t consider clean enough. “You aren’t getting out of this bed until you’re well. Cleaning lady be damned.”

“Why are you being so nice to me?”

Her words took him aback. Hadn’t anyone ever been kind to her? He suspected there was more to her clichéd upbringing than she’d told him, but that story would have to wait for another day. He poured some medicine into the tiny cup and held her head as she drank it. Then he retrieved two more blankets from the linen hutch.

She closed her eyes. She’d be asleep within moments. Her trembling continued and he was concerned by her pale face.

Fuck it. He’d never be able to sleep in his office, worrying about her. He grabbed her flashlight, returning to the hallway to turn off the lights. Using the tiny beam, he made his way back to the stage, dragging a chair with him. He sat down next to the bed and placed his hand on Shea’s forehead, checking for fever.

She startled but didn’t speak.

“Go to sleep, Shea. I just want to stay close in case you need anything.”

She sighed and, just like that, she was asleep.

Travis sat awake for hours as he considered what he’d done. When he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer, he moved from the chair to the bed, careful to remain above the covers in case Shea woke up. He didn’t want to scare her, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep upstairs alone.

Shea rolled over and placed her head on his shoulder. He froze. Her hand rested on his chest and, for the briefest moment, he wondered how he could move away without waking her.

He closed his eyes as a surprising realization dawned. He didn’t want to leave the bed. She was touching him and, rather than feeling the usual revulsion, Travis felt warm, relaxed.

He looked down at Shea’s peaceful face. He wasn’t sure what it was about her, but she’d caught his attention and held it. For years he’d existed in a solitary world, careful to keep everyone around him at arm’s length. He didn’t feel the need to maintain that same distance with Shea—which was ridiculous considering the fact she was a stranger.

He suspected in the morning she’d try to leave again. Offer her silly apologies with the intention of walking away. He put his arm around her shoulders and held her tighter to him.

She was staying here until he figured out what the hell was going on—with her and with him.

She wasn’t going anywhere.

Not yet.

* * * *

Shea had considered her proposition carefully before coming to see Travis. She’d heard the rumors surrounding his so-called war madness all the way back in London. She’d struggled not to let him see her shock at his appearance. The slim, boisterous, cocky boy she’d grown up with had definitely changed. In his place was a quieter, sadder, less trusting Travis. He’d lost too much weight and she didn’t like the dark circles under his eyes. He was hurting—anyone could see that—and she was quite resolved to help him.

Despite the new scar and weariness on his face, he still managed to take her breath away. Not that she’d ever let him know of her attraction to him. Travis had never lacked in female companionship, widows and housemaids all lining up for his affections. That was why she’d come up with her proposition. He needed a distraction. She wanted his experience.

“Sex?” Travis rose from his desk, leaning forward slightly. “Have you gone mad? Get married. Your husband will teach you about that.”

She narrowed her eyes. “I told you. I don’t intend to marry.”

“Then I suppose you’ll simply have to forget about—”

“I won’t forget about it.” She raised her voice, pretending to be angry. Travis never failed to rise to the occasion of a good fight and she was anxious to produce some sort of emotion in him. She didn’t like the distant man standing before her. “I can see you won’t even consider the thought and that I’ve wasted your time.”

“Shea. Please be reasonable.”

She walked to the other side of his desk, leaning toward him with her hands pressed flat across the top. How many times had they faced off in exactly this manner in the past?

“Reasonable? Is it reasonable for society to draw impenetrable lines around women? Is it reasonable to trap us in boxes under the pretense of protection? Why does this male-dominated society assume single women don’t have brains…or needs?”

Travis sighed. “I’ve heard your opinions about the supposed mistreatment of women in society since you were old enough to speak, Shea. We really don’t need to go over them once more.”

She studied his weary face. In the past, Travis used to love to debate. They’d spent hours, nay days, locked in intellectual discourse over a variety of topics. “What happened to you?”

Travis scowled. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

Yes he did. “What happened to you in the war? How did you get that scar?”

He stood straighter then took a step back, trying to distance himself. She didn’t like it. Travis had never allowed anything to come between them, but there was definitely a wall surrounding him now. “It was a war. Lots of killing, senseless death. I failed to dodge a sergeant’s swing and his sword altered my appearance.”

“I understand you were bedridden upon arriving home.”

“I suffered some injuries. There were others who fared much worse. I can assure you of that.”

She wanted to ask more but Travis’ stance, his entire disposition warned her further questions would go unanswered. “I was sorry to hear about your parents.”

The elder Knights had contracted a fever during the winter, passing away before Travis could be summoned home from war.

He nodded, accepting her condolences in silence. How much loss and pain could one person be expected to endure in a single year? Concern for his mental well-being was one of the main things prompting her request. Travis needed something to take his mind off his woes.

The corners of her mouth tipped up in a small grin. What better distraction than sexual pleasure? She’d read everything she could get her hands on about the act of coupling and she was fascinated, enthralled.

Unfortunately, countless now-wed friends seemed to find the marriage bed a cold comfort. Shea had long ago given up hope of finding a husband. She was too outspoken for most men of her acquaintance. Travis was the only man she’d ever met who didn’t consider her intelligence a major flaw in her character.

“So you won’t even consider my request?” she asked.

“To bed you?” He shook his head. “Absolutely not.”

Shea took a deep breath, refusing to give up the fight just yet. Time to advance to the next level. “Very well. Good day, Travis.”

He narrowed his eyes. “That’s it?”

She nodded. “There seems to be nothing left to discuss.”

“So you will forget this harebrained scheme?”

She gave him a mischievous grin, shook her head and turned to leave.

“Wait,” Travis said. “You’re not going anywhere. Not yet.”

~

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