Steal My Heart - J.H. Croix

Chapter One

Ash (Ashley)

I swung my guitar over my shoulder and stepped onto the wooden stage, casting a quick smile at the smattering of applause and whistles. “Hey y’all, I’m only here for an hour, so let’s not wait.”

I never waited. I launched into my first song and got lost in the music. An hour later, I walked off the stage with the cheers from the audience reverberating through me. For that hour, I’d dropped into the one place where I could forget the mess of my life.

“Great set,” a voice called, just as someone else’s hand slapped my ass, much harder than I preferred from anyone, much less a stranger. I cast a sharp glare over my shoulder and kept on walking. I hoped I had enough tips from filling in at the bar earlier to pad the measly paycheck I would get for playing that set.

“Ash,” a voice said, slicing through the din of noise and bodies crowding around me as I tried to get to the back of the bar.

I knew that voice, but for the life of me, I couldn’t place it. I did a quick scan around me. The crowd parted as a tall form became visible. The man practically swatted people out of his way as if they were nothing more than flies.

Mack Blair, all six feet and five inches of him, came into my line of sight. My body did a startling thing with my belly flipping quickly and my pulse doing a little hop, skip, and jump.

Okay, that was weird. Giving myself a mental shake, I smiled up at Mack when he stopped in front of me. “Well, hey there, Mack. What are you doing here?”

Mack’s dark blue eyes swept up and down my body before searching my face. “I could ask you the same. Let’s—”

I was cut off when someone bumped into me from behind, sending me colliding against Mack. Mack, with his bear-like presence, swiftly slid his arm around my back, shielding me from everyone jostling around us. “Fuck, this place is busy,” he muttered.

I’d known Mack for pretty much forever. Since elementary school, at least. I was startled at the little shiver that chased over my skin at the sound of his gruff words in my ear.

“It is,” I murmured in reply. “Come on, my stuff is in the back.”

Mack kept his arm around my waist, basically clearing a path for us until we reached the door where I pointed. Once we pushed through the door and it swung shut behind us, his arm fell away, and I sagged against the wall.

“Wow, it went from kind of busy to a little nuts while I was playing.”

I’d hugged my guitar to my chest while we walked through the crowd, so I lowered it now, holding it loosely in one hand.

Mack gave me a long look. “Good to see you, Ash.”

One side of his mouth kicked up into a familiar grin, and my belly did another flip. I wondered just what in the world was going on with this reaction to Mack. I’d never responded to him like this.

“You too. I’d say let’s grab a drink here, but it’s pretty crowded.”

“I drove past a diner down the road. Grab your stuff, and let’s go get coffee or food or whatever,” Mack commented.

“Sounds good. I’m actually starving,” I replied as I pushed off the wall. “Follow me.”

Mack and I had grown up in Stolen Hearts Valley, North Carolina, and he was one of my brother’s best friends. Awareness prickled down my spine as he followed me down the hallway. I chose to ignore it, convinced my body’s weird reaction to him was probably just because I was so startled to see him.

Stepping into the room where the bar owner had told me I could leave my stuff, I grabbed my purse and my bag before I looked up at him. “Jesus. I forgot how tall you were.”

Mack arched a brow. “I’ve been this tall since my senior year in high school. Speaking of forgetting, I forgot how good you were.”

“At what?” I countered as I looked at the envelope sitting on top of my purse. I ripped it open to see the check for tonight, a whopping one hundred and fifty bucks, and the cash from my tips.

“Singing and playing,” Mack replied.

I held his eyes for a few beats, feeling heat on my cheeks. “Thanks,” I finally managed.

I quickly counted out the tips, relieved to discover an additional one hundred bucks.

“You ready?” he asked