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Jessica Stanley is comfortable in her orderly life as a paralegal at a high end law firm. Having dated her fair share of liars and manipulators, Jessica views men through a pair of thick, cynical lenses. Men are good for one thing in her eyes, and one thing only. Her predictable life is thrown into a whirlwind of new experiences when she meets a dominating man at a casual dinner with friends.
Royce Bradford is a man of intent and is used to getting his way. Until he meets Jessica. She is wound tight, and he finds himself yearning to unravel her secrets and her passions. Jessica declares their relationship casual. She’s tempted by his seductive tone and unusually powerful demeanor to give him that much. But for Royce, it’s not enough. He wants more. Except Jessica has built a secret tomb around her heart, and it will take a lot more than sensual play times and verbal commands for him to be allowed entrance. Royce never backs down from his desires. He takes up the challenge to seek out her Hidden Heart.
Jessica Stanley had listened to her friends prattle on and on about love and where to find it and where not to, but she knew the truth about ‘true love’. It was a myth, spread among generations in order to encourage the single woman to continue her search for the man of her dreams. Jessica knew better. She’d called off the hopeless scavenger hunt a year after turning twenty-five.
Men weren’t what the romance novels promised. Not by a long shot.
This wasn’t to say Jessica didn’t love men. She did. They brought many physical attributes to a relationship; however, quality batteries and well-crafted machinery could easily replace those.
No, she would stick to nights out with good friends and weekends buried in books.
Friday nights were all about good friends. Most of her group beat her to the restaurant. The hostess pointed Jessica in their direction, the back corner of the bistro, hidden from most of the restaurant. Jessica wiggled between chairs and tripped over someone’s coat before she managed to get to them.
“Jessica!” Erin stood up and threw her arms around her. White Diamonds perfume enveloped her as much as Erin’s arms did. Jessica took a deep breath through her mouth and grinned. “I wasn’t sure you’d make it! Alex said you were working on some big case this week.” Erin took her seat.
“It’s nearly finished, and I’m not thinking about it tonight.” Jessica shimmied out of her coat and took a seat beside Jonathan, Erin’s fiancé.
“I hear Alex is bringing a new guy tonight.” Kelly chimed in after a long sip of her appletini. Her tone suggested more than an offering of information.
“I think he mentioned something. I haven’t really talked to him this week. Maybe you’ll find your true love.” Jessica rolled her eyes at Kelly, who seemed to perk up at the idea. Always on the lookout for the one, Kelly over used the term more than any in their group.
“You aren’t still thinking to stay celibate the rest of your life, are you?” Jonathan asked as he tried waving down a waiter with his empty beer bottle.
“No. I’m just not wasting time on searching for the catch of my life.” Jessica smoothed down her windblown chestnut hair.
“Look at us.” Erin linked her arm through Jonathan’s and smiled. “We’re happy. It is possible to find a great guy who makes you happy.”
Jessica rolled her eyes at the sappy sentiment, fully ignoring her own twinge of envy pulling at her heart. Jonathan continued his search for a waiter.
“Ooh, now that is a good looking man.” Kelly straightened her shirt and rushed a finger comb through her thick, red curls while keeping her eyes fixed on her prey.
Jessica followed Kelly’s stare. Alex pushed his way through the tables toward them, a man walked behind him. A tall man. A tall man with undeniably handsome features. A tall, hot man, wearing a suit and looking very much a like a character straight off the set of Mad Men. His hair was a dark shade of brown, too dark to be brown and too light to be black. Whatever the name of the color, it accentuated his blue eyes perfectly.
Jessica found herself holding her breath and had to remind herself to breathe. He was just a guy.
“Sorry we’re late. The damn cab got lost. I had to get him back here. Did you order appetizers yet? I’m starving!” Alex plowed through a small crowd of people and burst out at their table. He shrugged off his coat, and threw it over the back of a chair. “Everyone, this is Royce Bradford. Royce, this is everyone. Jessica, Erin, Jonathan and Kelly. I need to piss. Jess, get me a beer, would ya?” Alex disappeared before anyone could react to the new member of their group.
“Whirlwind, that guy.” Royce broke the awkward silence. Kelly laughed like a nervous high school girl. Jessica mentally vowed if Kelly started to bat her eyelashes she’d throw water at her.
“You can sit, you know.” Jessica waved a hand at the empty seat beside Alex’s coat. “He’ll be back in a few minutes and will completely monopolize the evening.”
Royce took his seat with a smile. Not an awkward smile but a controlled, casual grin. Kelly was close to drooling on her plate.
“Royce. That’s an uncommon name.” Kelly rested her chin on her fist with a wide smile from across the table.
“I’m afraid my mother may have read one too many romance novels before I was born.” He rewarded her with a grin that showcased his perfectly white teeth.
“Ugh! Forget it.” Jonathan dropped his empty beer bottle on the table. “This place is too busy. Alex always picks the busiest places.”
“It’s Friday night in Chicago. Every restaurant is too busy.” Jessica pointed out.
Royce turned in his chair and raised his hand. A short blonde waitress wearing too much makeup arrived at their table. Jonathan watched in awe, barely able to sputter out his order. Jessica pretended not to notice the eagerness of the waitress, or how she fawned over Royce. The buttons on her blouse threatened to burst off and injure one of them if she pushed her chest out any further at him.
Alex returned to the table as the drinks arrived. “Jess, I was afraid you wouldn’t make it tonight. You said you’ve been buried all week.” He sipped at his beer. “Jess works at McCannis and Son’s firm. Trying to take down some big corporation for screwing with the employee’s 401(k)s.”
Royce raised an eyebrow in her direction. His blue eyes darkened. “Not another Enron, I hope.”
“No, nothing that serious. Just some corrupt bastards messing with balances and withholdings.” Jessica waved a hand in the air. “I’m just a paralegal, not the attorney. Alex makes everything I do sound more important than it is.” She felt the blush spread over her cheeks and cursed herself. He was just a guy, like any other guy, she didn’t need or want his approval of her job.
“Oh, please!” Alex rolled his eyes. “You carry that asshole you work for. If it weren’t for you, he’d have lost his partnership and most of his cases last year.”
Jessica laughed off his praise and squeezed his hand. “The big brother I never had.” She changed the subject by looking over at Kelly and asking about her day.
Kelly worked at UIC, their alder mater; however, she was now the professor, instead of the student. Kelly loved to talk about her job. Royce made the perfect new audience, and Jessica relaxed back in her chair and watched the show.
Kelly grew more desperate by the day to find her soul mate. She wanted a family, the perfect husband, and exactly two children, one boy and one girl. It was her life’s goal. By achieving that, her life would be complete. Jessica didn’t understand her obsession with a husband and a family, but she wouldn’t begrudge her friend anything she wanted. Kelly deserved to have the fairytale of her dreams, even if Jessica didn’t believe in a fairy tales anymore.
Royce listened dutifully, occasionally glancing at Jessica to gauge her expressions. Jessica tried to ignore his stares, but she couldn’t lie to herself that his glances weren’t making her warm under the collar.
He was very attractive; she couldn’t lie about that either. Too attractive. He would be interested in only one thing, and then he’d leave, or he’d not be interested in her from the start. Either way he spelled trouble. She tried to focus on Kelly, but having heard the rant a dozen times before, Jessica found it very difficult to concentrate.
“What do you do?” Kelly finally turned the conversation over to Royce.
“Oh, he’s the new VP of marketing.”
“Alex, he’s a big boy. Let him answer.” Erin reached over the table and playfully slapped Alex’s hand.
Jonathan watched her with an odd expression.
“Well, he’s right. Just moved here from New York.” Royce scanned the menu.
“You don’t have an accent.” Jessica pointed out with skepticism. She couldn’t help herself. She shrugged off the glare from Alex. He was one of her closest friends, so she was able to forgive him for being a part of the male cult of society. He had nursed her through several break-ups, and never once did he mutter the words I told you so, even though—more than once—he had in fact told her so.
“No, I’m originally from here. Well, the northern suburbs,” he explained with a casual tone, his eyes locked with hers.
Jessica tore her gaze from him and looked at Alex. “I thought you were up for that promotion.”
He shook his head. “No, I’m up for the advertising department.”
“Isn’t it the same thing?”
“Yes and no.” Alex shrugged. “Let’s talk about something not work related.” He looked over at Jonathan for his assistance.
The talk turned casual. Jonathan and Alex made plans for tailgating during the football season. Kelly smiled like a star-struck teen at Royce, who continued to be polite, while stealing glances at Jessica.
“Are you in sales or the craft of advertising?” Jessica found herself asking over her latte. The meal was well past gone and the dessert plate Alex had ordered for the table remained in the center of the table scarcely touched.
“I prefer the craft. I went to school originally for writing. Advertising didn’t seem too far off from writing fiction at the time. However, business being what it is, there isn’t much in the way of craft anymore. Now it’s all about projections, sales numbers, and profit margins.” He sounded forlorn. She suspected he longed for something he’d left behind in the past. She knew that feeling intimately.
“So you started out as a writer and ended up VP of Marketing. Not too bad, I guess.” She could hear the sarcasm in her own voice and chastised herself for not being better at hiding her annoyance for the opposite sex. Alex reminded her relentlessly that not all people of the male persuasion were bad, and she’d do better in life not to hate men in general. Hate was a strong word, and didn’t accurately express her feelings for men. Mistrust worked better. She didn’t trust men.
“Royce, how is it that you have not been snatched up by some beautiful woman? I mean New York is crawling with them.” Kelly blurted out and didn’t even have the decency to look embarrassed over her statement.
“Kelly, not everyone is out looking for the one and only,” Jessica interjected. “I’m sure there were plenty of women in New York who Royce enjoyed the company of, but that doesn’t mean he had to settle down with any of them.” She maintained her composure surprisingly well when Alex kicked her shin with the tip of his booted foot. The corner of Royce’s lips curled slightly at her remark, turning his eyes on her.
“Actually, there was one woman in New York. I only lived there for three years. She and I parted ways a few months back.” Royce kept his eyes focused on Jessica as he answered, then swung a carefree smile toward Kelly.
“You’ll have to forgive Jessica. She doesn’t believe love exists anymore.” Erin pushed her dessert plate away.
“Perhaps she hasn’t met the right sort of man,” Royce stated in a flat voice. Jessica’s eyes found his. If she hadn’t given up on reading signals, she would have sworn there was promise in his deep blue eyes. But she had given up, she reminded herself.
“That’s probably right.” Alex looked at his watch. “Well, kids, I gotta run.” He shoved back from the table and whipped his overcoat on. “Do you want to share a cab?” he questioned Royce.
“No, thanks. I don’t live too far from here, maybe five blocks or so. I think I’ll hoof it while the weather holds out.”
“Fair enough. Jess, I’ll call you in the morning.” Alex leaned down and placed a chaste kiss on her cheek before waving to the rest of the group and taking his leave.
“Did he just stiff us with the bill?” Kelly watched Alex leave.
“No.” Jessica laughed. “He’d never do that. He’s going to stop at the front and pay the whole damn tab.” She reached behind her and started to put her arms in the sleeves of her coat. “Tell me you’ve never noticed him do that.”
Alex earned more money than all of them combined. He found the fact embarrassing and hated talking about it.
“I don’t know; I guess I just never paid attention.”
Jessica felt Royce watching her with fascination as she put her coat on while it remained draped over the chair. She stood from the table, and the coat conformed to her body perfectly.
“What?” She looked around to see if she had dropped or torn something.
“Nothing.” He shook his head with one corner of his mouth turned up in a grin. He had a sexy grin. A little crease formed on the side of his lips. The sexiest of smiles did that.
“I’m going to head out. I’ll see you guys next Friday. Kelly, your pick, don’t forget. And please, nowhere crazy. I’m still surprised we didn’t all die from that hole in the wall you took us to last time.” Better to make a quick getaway before he did anything else to make her want to forget her pledge of single womanhood and jump in his lap.
“Hey, that Indian place was great.” Kelly pouted.
“Right. I’ll see you later.” Jessica waved at the group. She stepped to the side to allow Royce more room as he stood from his chair.
“It was very nice meeting everyone.” Royce nodded to the group then turned to Jessica. “May I walk you to the door?” he asked in a gentleman’s voice.
She looked him over and shrugged. No point getting her hopes up. “Sure. We’re both headed that way anyway.” She ignored the scowl on Kelly’s face. She would call her later and beg for forgiveness. The last thing she wanted was to take away Kelly’s hope, but Royce wasn’t the one. Kelly would have to keep looking.
Jessica walked ahead of Royce and only noticed his presence when he reached in front of her to move a chair from blocking her way. She mumbled a thank you and continued on toward the door. Before she could open it, he reached in front of her again and pushed it open, letting in the sharp, cool air.
“Hail a cab?” He started to raise his hand, and she had no doubt that several cabs would pull over the instant he did so. He had an air of authority about him, as though anything he commanded would simply happen. She’d met very few men who held themselves with such confidence as he did.
“I walked. Just a few blocks,” she stated as she buttoned her coat, holding her purse tightly between her arm and body.
“Which way?” He dropped his hand.
“That way.” She pointed north and was rewarded with another grin that displayed a small dimple on his right cheek, which she hadn’t seen during dinner. Dimples ranked right up there with the crease.
“Me too. Okay if I join you?” He slid his hands into his pockets.
She swallowed. “Sure. Why not.” She shrugged again. A walk was harmless.
They walked in silence for the first block. Neither seemed to know what to say or how to begin a conversation. Jessica felt his eyes on her, but continued to look straight ahead of her. It had been a while since she spent this much time alone with a man.
Royce broke the silence by inquiring about her work. He gave her his full attention, asking questions when he didn’t understand something she said. He didn’t just nod and daydream like most of the men she’d dated. Giving the appearance of genuine interest, he remained focused on their conversation. He was tasteful, she’d give him that.
She began to relax by the time they made their way to her block. She turned her focus on him as he told her about his new position. He hadn’t been looking for an executive job when he’d applied with Alex’s company, and he seemed cautiously optimistic about the new position.
“You don’t seem the type to consider failure as an option.” She stepped onto the steps of her apartment building.
“Failure is always an option. Just not the best one.” He leaned against the railing, a step below her. Their positioning brought their eyes level. “I’m not concerned that I won’t be a good fit for the position.”
“Ah, you’re not sure if the position is the right fit for you.” She cast a glance at the neighboring building. A couple walked down to the street together. The woman, a beautiful brunette, walked with a small, almost unnoticeable, limp as though she felt tender with her movements. The man walked behind her as a cab pulled to the curb, and he opened the door for her.
He slid his hand under her hair and cupped the back of her head, pulling her to his lips. They exchanged a passionate kiss, which he broke off, causing her to look disappointed. He laid a hand on a pendant she wore around her neck and said something to her that Jessica couldn’t make out. The woman’s smile spoke of pure happiness—raw joy—as though his words had hugged her.
Jessica heard the woman say, “Yes, Sir. Thank you,” before she sank into the cab. The man paid the driver and waved to her as she pulled away.
“Jessica…Jessica…” Royce’s voice pulled her back to him.
“I’m…wow. I’m sorry. I was…” She watched the man skip up his steps and go back into his building. Was he whistling?
“You were eavesdropping on that couple.” Royce’s eyes glistened with laughter, his lips curving up at the ends.
“Yes.” She laughed. “It’s just…they seemed so entwined with each other.”
“Some couples are actually happy together.” He pointed out
“She didn’t call him by his name. She called him Sir. Isn’t that an odd thing to call your lover?” she asked, using her forefinger to push a lock of hair behind her ear.
Royce’s expression changed. Grew darker. The laughter in his eyes dropped and was replaced with a mysterious look of seriousness, as though her words struck a nerve.
“No, it’s not odd at all. To some, it’s just as endearing as calling him honey or sweetheart—perhaps more intimate than those words.” His voice was smooth, firm. Controlled. She swung her eyes to the door of the man’s apartment and back to Royce. There was more here than she knew about.
“I should probably get inside. I’m getting cold. Thanks for walking me home.” She nodded and began to walk up her steps.
“You aren’t one for hugs and such.”
She stopped midstride and looked back at him. “That’s a weird thing to say.” Facing him from two steps up, she slid her hands into her pockets. Just because he’d been on target, didn’t mean she needed to give him credit for it.
He looked up at her. “Not really. I noticed when we left the restaurant you didn’t hug anyone goodbye, and Alex’s kiss made you feel awkward.”
She didn’t know what to say to him. He was right. “Not every woman likes to be hugged and kissed all the time.” She shot back at him, and he smiled. Not a smile with humor, but one of knowledge, as though she had just told him some secret he had been looking for.
“You’re right.” He pushed off the railing. “Do you think we could have dinner together? Tomorrow maybe?”
She looked down at him with narrow eyes. “I don’t know.”
“I’m not proposing marriage. I’m asking you to dinner.” He pointed out with a grin. There was that damn dimple again.
“Okay. One less night of ramen noodles is fine with me.” She shrugged, and he shook his head.
“You are not as complicated as you would like everyone to believe, Jessica. I’ll pick you up at seven.”
Before she could respond to his first comment, he turned and walked away. She watched him for a moment then ran up the steps to the safety of her apartment. She needed to put some space between them, go somewhere he couldn’t read her inner thoughts so damn easily.
Royce walked into his two-bedroom apartment unsure of what he might find when he turned on the lights. The woman he’d spoken of at dinner had been more of serious break-up than he’d let on. She had not taken the split well and was still trying to persuade him to take her back.
Melody hadn’t been a flimsy dalliance, but she was not what he wanted for the rest of his life either. The time came when he had to break off their relationship because he could tell she was looking for more than he was able to give her. The job offer in Chicago could not have come at a more convenient time. Unfortunately, Melody found out from a mutual friend where he had landed and began sending “housewarming” gifts once a week.
When he called to thank her for the first gift, a new set of wine glasses, he kept the conversation short. He deliberately called during her lunch break, knowing she’d have to run into a meeting shortly after the call began. He sent a thank you card after the second gift—a set of martini glasses—and assured her no more gifts were required. The third gift, a set of shot glasses, received no reply from him at all.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he turned on the lights and didn’t see a package anywhere in sight. He tossed his keys on the nearest table and went to his bedroom in search of something more comfortable to wear.
He didn’t quite know exactly what to make of Jessica other than he found himself drawn to her. Her attempt to keep her attitude aloof and offer him indifference had failed. He’d noticed the tapping of her fingers on the table when she’d felt his stare on her. She’d wanted to look at him, wanted to see what he was up to, but she’d forced herself to keep her eyes anywhere else. As though looking at him would somehow grant him a point in an imaginary win column.
The peck Alex gave her before he left had made her uncomfortable. She’d wiped the kiss from her cheek as soon as he’d turned away, and she’d looked awkward, as though her brother had just made a pass at her. She wasn’t one for open affection, no hugs to all of her friends as she left, just a simple wave of her hand. But her controlled features warmed at the sight of the couple outside her apartment building. She had watched intently as they’d had their passionate embrace, and she’d listened with keen precision as the woman spoke to her lover.
What an odd thing to call your lover, she had said.
He thought about how beautiful her voice would sound when she called him Sir for the first time.