Heart of Steele

Hot Country Series, Book 2

Actress Tracy Hartman can’t believe she just punched country music superstar Steele McLairn in the mouth. And of course, somebody recorded it! Now, the thing has gone viral and to avoid their being harassed by the tabloids, Steele convinces Tracy to head out of LA with him. In a cozy, remote spot, they find the desire they’ve been feeling for each other has grown into full-blown lust.

Steele can’t believe his luck. Alone with Tracy, and all it took was taking a punch to the mouth. She’s funny, sweet, sexy, and ready to experience every wild thing Steele hungers to do with her. But their time together is cut short, and hidden family issues threaten the trust they’ve built. Can they find the courage to confide in each other, or will their secrets force them apart?


Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Tracy Hartman sat in the tall makeup chair staring at her reflection in the studio’s dressing room mirror. Her long blonde hair framed her hot, red face, and shock glazed her green eyes. The four other women who shared the room for the video shoot had made themselves scarce when she’d come stumbling in.

She lifted her hands. They shook like a Hollywood earthquake.

Had she actually just punched Steele McLairn, country music’s hottest superstar, in the mouth?

The pain in the knuckles of her right hand confirmed it.

Pressing her icy fingers to her burning cheeks, she concentrated on breathing. “What did I do?” She’d tried getting her point across to him by yelling, but when he’d given her that trademark smirk of his…

Dropping her head into her palms, she let out a shaky sob. She may as well cry, no sense in preserving her makeup. She wouldn’t be doing any more filming today. Maybe not ever again.

She should get up and change out of the studio’s costume. Red, spike-heeled cowgirl boots, short shorts, and pink T-shirt, tied up under her breasts seemed a little cliché for a country music video, but it was the hot look this year.

The knock on the door echoed like the final act of a horror movie.

Her heart thudded. Here it was, her ‘getting fired’ scene, but in real life. “Come in.”

Steps sounded behind her, the door closed, and a hand, warm and large, rested on her shoulder.

“Tracy.”

She jerked. It was Steele. She lifted her head and stared at his reflection in the mirror.

He’d taken off his black cowboy hat. His short, dark hair looked like he’d run his hands through it. A lot. His gray-green eyes held confusion instead of the anger she’d expected to see.

She opened her mouth to apologize, but all that came out was a sorry croak and the first breaths of a full meltdown.

His lower lip was swollen, and the side of his mouth glowed bright red. It’d bruise for sure. Why had Steele come instead of sending the studio rep or someone from his entourage? He wanted to fire her himself?

He swung her chair around to face him then lifted his palms. “What the hell happened?” His low Texas accent usually gave her gooseflesh, but now it chilled her.

Hell, she’d started this fight with a strong right cross, now was her chance to finish it in a more mature way. Sniffing back tears, she swallowed hard. “I’ve never hit anyone before. I don’t believe in violence.”

“Coulda fooled me.” His tongue touched the puffiness on his lip.

“I have no excuse for what I did.” She shook her head, hoping her brain would shift into gear. “When I heard what you said on the phone…” Now, her anger rose up again. How could he say such horrible things about her friend Reno? How could he encourage Chase to turn his back on his family?

“What I said on the phone?” His brows dropped. “To my dad?”

Tracy’s galloping thought processes skidded to a halt. “What? Your dad?”

Steele narrowed his gaze on her. “I was talking to my dad when you started yelling.” He worked his strong jaw. “Then you clocked me a good one.” He shrugged. “I know I was using some inappropriate language, but goddamn, Tracy.” He fisted his hands. “You gotta admit you went more than half-crazy.”

Oh God. He’d been talking to his father. Not to Chase, not about Reno and tiny baby Joy. Mind-spinning panic gripped her. She’d just made a complete idiot of herself and ruined her career—worst of all, hurt one of the nicest guys she’d ever met—for absolutely no reason. Closing her eyes, she wished the clock would turn back an hour.

Steele paced to the far end of the room and back. “Are you going to explain yourself? Or do I need to have you arrested?”

Tracy’s eyes popped open and she looked up at him.

He had that smirk on his face again. The one she hadn’t been able to resist smacking off him earlier.

He could do it, too. Have her arrested for assault. She needed to explain this, make him realize she wasn’t certifiably insane. “I’m sorry, Steele. I thought you were talking to Chase. I made a terrible mistake.” She had to get out of there. “Please, don’t file a complaint. I promise you’ll never see me again.”

“Wait. Chase?” He ran a hand through his hair. “Why would I be talking to Chase about…paternity?”

While he was on the phone, he’d used the word “bastard,” not “paternity.” Tracy saw honest confusion in his stare. He hadn’t heard about the baby? Steele and Chase were best friends, and with their buddy Ryder Landry, they were known as the Hot Country Triple Threat. She’d just assumed Chase had called Steele to share his fatherhood news with him.

She slowly reached to where her purse sat on the makeup counter. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

When Steele leaned back on the counter across from hers and crossed his arms, she made her move. Grabbing her purse, she jumped off the chair and half-ran toward the door, her spiky boot heels tapping on the tile floor. “I’m really sorry. You won’t ever have to worry—”

An iron grip circled her upper arm and swung her around. “Hang on.” He let her go immediately. Probably afraid she’d take another swing at him. “You need to tell me what the hell is going on, Tracy.”

He took three steps and stood between her and the door. “And it’s going to happen right now.”

Sucking in a slow breath, she nodded. “You deserve an explanation.” She’d handled this so terribly wrong, she could at least give him the good news in a non-crazy manner.

He gestured to the small couches that formed an ‘L’ in one corner of the room.

Tracy walked to the middle of one and sat, expecting Steele to sit on the other couch, but he plopped down right next to her. He was the most amazing-looking man she’d ever met, and she’d met many handsome guys in LA. His long, black lashes framed incredible green-flecked gray eyes. The dark slashes of his eyebrows looked almost sculpted.

One of those brows lifted, and his full lips tightened. “Is this going to happen soon?”

She fingered her purse strap. “Reno just told Chase today that they have a baby.”

Steele’s mouth dropped open. “What? How did that happen?”

Tracy opened her eyes wide.

He waved a hand. “No, that’s not what I meant. How did he not know about the baby until now?”

“Reno left for France, found out she was carrying his child, but when she came back and tried to tell him…” She shrugged. “Well, you know how Chase is. He pushed her away before she could break the good news.” Tracy rolled her eyes. “He rationalized it by saying it was the best thing for her.”

Steele crossed one booted ankle on the opposite knee and laid his arm on the back of the couch, his hand brushing her shoulder. “Ain’t that a kick in the ass.” He looked around the room, then back at her. “So, why’d she wait until now to tell him?”

“Chase showed up at her place today.”

He gave a long, low whistle. “I bet that shocked his good ol’ boy heart a bit. Good for her, though, waiting until that hardheaded cowboy got his brain on right and went crawling back.”

Tracy gave a small smile. Steele’s assessment of Chase Tanner was accurate. The man was a billionaire country rock star, but had no common sense. At least he hadn’t, until today.

She shifted to the edge of the couch. “So, of course I assumed you were talking to Chase. About baby Joy.”

“Joy.” One side of his mouth lifted. “I can see Reno choosing that name. You got a picture of her?” He sat forward. “Of the baby, I mean.”

“Um.” She hadn’t been prepared for that question. “Yes. On my phone.” She opened her purse and started digging.

A humming sound came from the couch. “That’s my damn phone.” Steele pulled his buzzing cell from his back pocket. “I’d better take this. It’s the seventh time he’s called since…” He shrugged his eyebrows.

Tracy glanced down to see a long crack on the phone’s face. That had to have happened when it went flying after her punch. She needed to buy him a new one. And forego groceries for a week.

Steele put the phone to his ear. “Yeah?” His brows drew down and his jaw tightened. “How long?” He looked at her. “She’s right here.”

Finding her phone in her purse, she kept an eye on Steele. What was going on now? Worst case scenarios flitted through her brain. The police, his attorney, the actors’ union…

He listened silently for a few minutes then huffed out a breath. “Okay. Let me think about that and I’ll call you back.” He paused, listening. “I understand that, but I need to think.” He ended the call.

Staring at the phone, he tapped his booted toe on the floor.

Tracy waited, not really wanting to hear what he was about to say.

“Okay.” He leaned closer. “Show me baby Joy.”

“Huh?” She blinked. “Oh, right.” The man could change tracks faster than a bullet train. She accessed her photos, enlarged the latest one Reno had sent her, and handed the phone to him.

“Oh.” Steele’s face softened and a sweet smile curled his lips. “She’s the spitting image of her daddy.”

Tracy leaned closer and looked. “She is. She’s got this one face she makes when she’s…” She circled her hand. “Making a mess in her diaper, that looks just like him.”

He laughed, loud and happy. “Yep, Chase always has a shitty smirk on his face.” He handed the phone back to her. “He’s a lucky man.”

She tucked her phone back in her purse, her stomach clenching now that reality was about to slam back in on them. “I don’t know why I reacted so inappropriately to your using the word ‘bastard’ before, but…” She faced him. “I apologize, and I promise you’ll never see me again.”

“Tracy.” His voice sounded like her high school principal when she’d been called into his office. “It’s not going to be that easy.”

“But if you’d just let me—”

“It’s gone viral.” He tapped on his phone, accessing something.

“Viral?” What was he talking about? They hadn’t been filming when she’d slugged him. Oh God, this was not good.

Voices came from his phone as he handed it to her.

She took it in her quivering hands. There she was, her back to the camera. It had to have been taken by a cell phone or small camera behind the scenes, because it shook a bit, and she could see the whole set.

It was her voice, loud and shrill as she stood in front of Steele and gestured wildly.

“Oh no. Tell me this isn’t on a website already. It’s been less than an hour.”

“It came out just in time to hit the afternoon celebrity buzz shows.” He pointed to the bottom of the screen. “Eighty-three thousand views already. It’s hot news. TV, radio, and a few dozen online sites.”

The phone bobbled in her nerveless fingers.

He quickly caught it, capturing her hand between his and the phone. “Careful, there. This old thing survived one hit today. Might not withstand another.”

She looked at him, his rugged face so close, she could smell mint on his breath. Was he talking about the phone, or himself? Only an hour ago, she would have teased him with that comment, but things were different, now. No more playful flirting. She’d be lucky to get out of here without her hands cuffed behind her back.

A woman’s scream came from the phone’s speaker, but it wasn’t Tracy’s. She must have just hit Steele, and there she was, storming away. In the video, he just stood there, his fingers pressed to the side of his mouth, watching her stomp across the sound stage in those crazy boots and Daisy Duke shorts.

“Steele, I’m so, so sorry.” Mounting panic stole her breath and blank spots popped in front of her eyes. “I don’t know how to fix this.” She couldn’t catch a full inhale.

“Whoa, there.” He took his phone and eased her back against the couch pillows. “Just concentrate on getting air into your lungs.”

It took a few minutes, but the dizziness left her. Her hand shook as she raised it to her forehead. “What should I do?” She could drive home to Montana for a few days. Weeks? Would it take weeks? Would this ever go away?

“That last call was from my agent, Rex Barton. He’s got my PR people working on this, but they need some time.” He stood, walked to the door, and spoke quietly to someone outside of it.

Her gaze ranged the length of him. Tall, long legs, tight jeans over his nice ass. His chest veed out from his narrow hips, and in the tight green T-shirt, his broad shoulders and big arms looked more like a bodybuilder’s than a country singer’s.

Steele closed the door and turned toward her. He slid his phone into his pocket. “The main gate is already blocked by paparazzi.”

How would she get out? “I could borrow a wig, maybe some clothes, or a pregnant belly costume.”

The uninjured corner of his mouth quirked up slightly. “Creative.” He leaned against the wall. “But they’re going to hound you until they get a story out of you, and Chase and Reno and Joy deserve better than to have their good news spread this way.”

“I promise.” She stood. “I won’t say anything.”

He lifted his brows. “You have no idea how bad they’ll make your life, Tracy.” Shaking his head, he stuck his hands in his front pockets. “There’s only one option.”

“I have to stay here?” It’d be her prison sentence for hauling off and smacking Steele.

A laugh huffed out of his lungs. “No. We need to go into hiding.” He glanced around the room. “Somewhere a hell of a lot more secure than here.”

“Secure? You mean the reporters can get in?” She slung her purse over her shoulder.

“There’s always someone working here who’d be willing to risk losing his job to sell a video to the media.” He nodded toward the door. “It just happened to us.”

She glanced up at the security camera on the ceiling. Were they watching now? Listening? Recording? “I can go back to Montana.”

“No good. They’d follow you, make a ruckus in your hometown. It would be rank bullshit for you and everyone you know.”

She couldn’t let the paparazzi find her hometown. Sooner or later, her family’s secret would leak out, and her career would be over. Tracy laced her fingers into her hair and tugged. “What do I do?”

“First of all, don’t panic.” His gaze shot to her hand. “And don’t pull out any of that beautiful hair of yours.”

Her hand dropped. “Easy for you to tell me not to panic.” She paced to the makeup counter and back. “You’ve got people to handle this for you, hide you, protect you.” Her pacing became quicker. “I know I brought this on myself, and I deserve the worst that happens to me, but I don’t—”

“Stop it.” He straightened and took a step toward her.

She swung around so fast, her purse strap slid off her shoulder and the bag hit the floor. “What?” He had no right to tell her she couldn’t have a full-blown panic attack.

He held out his hands. “What I mean is, stop trying to figure this out. It’s all planned.”

“What’s all planned?”

“We’re going to disappear together.” He took his buzzing phone from his pocket.

“It’s just that simple?” Each time they’d met, they’d flirted and exchanged intense looks, and she’d hoped he would ask her out, but this was not even close to the dinner and dancing she’d been hoping for. She picked up her purse and watched him typing on his phone.

“Yep. We’re gonna head out together in my car, change vehicles, then get out of town for a few days.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

He glanced up from his phone and those intense eyes locked onto hers. “No.”

A pitiful laugh escaped her throat. “I can’t just leave.”

“Why not?” His eyes narrowed. “Is there someone who’d be pissed that you went into hiding with me?”

Was that jealousy? “No, but I’d need to tell my roommate.”

“‘Roommate’ as in ‘boyfriend’?”

“No.” She hadn’t expected him to act all possessive. They’d met at a party nearly a year ago, she’d agreed to do the video with him a few months after that, then when shooting started a couple days ago, he’d been kind and professional, but hadn’t made any personal advances toward her. He had no claim on her.

“Clear your calendar for the next four days.” He went back to typing.

“Four days?” The only thing on her schedule was an acting class and filming the video—which was now cancelled due to Steele’s injury. “I guess it’s clear, but why four days?” She stepped closer to him. “And where are we going?”

He finished with his phone, put it in his pocket, and took her arm firmly in his hand. “I’ll tell you on the road. We need to get moving. Fast.” He grabbed the door handle. “Let’s go.”

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