by Bridget Midway
eBook ISBN: 978-1-60737-573-9
Cherish Burke has it all: a large corner office and a very efficient, if not sexy, assistant. She harbors fantasies about someone else taking over all of her responsibilities… Perry Stone fought to be Cherish Burke’s executive assistant. Perry Stone fought to be Cherish Burke’s executive assistant. Can they have a relationship that can last, or should they just keep it to casual Fridays?
“Fuck, I love Fridays!”
Cherish Burke glared at her friend and colleague, Vonda, sitting across from her. As executives at Stratum Corporation, especially as African American executives, Cherish had to wince at Vonda’s use of vulgar language. Luckily for her, no one sat around them in the company’s cafeteria.
“Easy, V.” Cherish cut her salad into smaller bite-size pieces.
“What?” Vonda swept her fingers over her bangs that hung down to her eyes.
Cherish scanned the area around them before speaking. “As members of upper management, we need to act with decorum and tact.”
Her friend cocked her head in a way that signaled a profanity-laced tirade. Instead she took a deep breath. “Don’t think I don’t get the fact that they’re watching us like hawks around here.” Vonda picked up her bottle of water. “We crashed through the glass ceiling, and they’re still picking shards out of their eyes.” She shook her head and took a swig of her water.
After eating a bit of her salad, Cherish wiped her mouth before speaking. “I do love my job, even with the scrutiny.”
Vonda snickered. “I knew you would. You love organizing and keeping things straight. But at the end of the day, don’t lose yourself in all of the drama around here.” She cut her gaze to the side, and a sly smile slithered across her face. “Speaking of straight, here comes your boy.”
Cherish turned to see her executive assistant, Perry Stone, strolling toward her with papers in his hands and a stoic expression on his face. Seeing him sent a ripple through her belly. And she smiled to herself with the notion that Perry could be “her boy” as Vonda had so named him. Considering she never had a man love her enough to offer her a ring in a promise of marriage, she couldn’t claim dominion over any man.
Cherish brushed her fingertips over the string of pearls around her neck. Just because she didn’t have power in her romantic life didn’t mean she couldn’t rule with an iron stiletto at the office.
Nothing about Perry personified authority, which made it easy to rule over him. He styled his mousy brown hair in the standard corporate manner, parted to the side. Although he never slouched or looked down when he walked, his slender frame fed the idea that he had to be some sort of pushover.
With her previous assistant—a quiet yet efficient, mature woman who wore glasses with a chain connected to them—Cherish couldn’t care less what the woman did for fun, or even if she was married or had children.
Perry. He proved to be an enigma, one who snagged her interest and kept her aching to unravel the silent mystery surrounding him.
Perhaps the fact that she hadn’t really dated in over four years had something to do with her obsession with him. That and other activities, secret ones.
Obsession. That accurately described how she regarded her employee. Cherish had checked his personnel file when he became her assistant. She wondered if he knew that she was two years younger than him. If he did know, did it bother him?
His personnel file didn’t reveal whether his towering height came from his mother’s side of the family or his father’s. Did he get that lean physique from swimming or did he work out? Or how many women and girls throughout his life crumbled when he stared at them with those sky blue eyes? And how did this straitlaced, clean-cut corporate rat-race runner develop calluses on the palms of his hands?
Cherish set her knife and fork onto her plate and placed her hands in her lap. With each step he took toward her, her heart pounded harder and faster, matching rhythm with his footfalls. The thumping sounded in her ears, drowning out the idle chatter in the sun-drenched room.
“As fine as he is, rumor has it that he’s playing for the other team,” Vonda said in a whisper as she leaned toward Cherish.
The statement forced Cherish to whip her head around. “What?”
“Folks around here say he’s gay. Someone said that she spotted him going to that big warehouse bookstore downtown on a Friday night one time and—”
Cherish snapped her attention to Vonda. “Who saw him? Did she say when? Did she see him with anyone?”
Vonda shrugged her shoulders. “Didn’t say. Man, if I didn’t know any better, I would say that you were interested in him.”
At that statement, Cherish snorted out a chuckle. “Don’t be ridiculous. If someone is going to make a claim like that, they had better come up with some great supporting evidence to prove it.” She kept her voice strong to show conviction in her words. After speaking, she chewed the inside of her cheek.
“Gay or straight. Doesn’t bother me one bit. Hell, I have a few uncles and cousins who came screaming out of the closet.” Vonda stared at Cherish’s assistant and sighed. “Just seems like a waste. You could have had him chasing you around your desk or more if you wanted. What is it that you do want, Cherish?”
Cherish rubbed the back of her neck with her hand. The mere thought of doing something so inappropriate at work inflamed her face. After her fingers brushed the clasp on her pearl necklace, she dropped her hand back down to her lap.
“For one thing, I don’t want to know anything about his personal life.” Thank goodness Vonda didn’t know about Cherish scouring his personnel file. “Point two, if he is gay, which I don’t think he is, that’s his business. And the final point”—and she had to make this quick before he reached their table—“I would never do anything improper with an employee at work.”
She cut her gaze away from Vonda. Her stomach wrenched at the tale she’d just told. Her statement couldn’t be classified as a lie. She had concluded it by including the phrase “at work.”
“Your loss.” Vonda managed to get in the last words just as Perry stood by their table.
“Sorry to disturb you at lunch, Ms. Burke.” His deep voice rolled over Cherish.
Cherish took a deep breath and held it until he spoke again.
“I have those papers you requested. You said you wanted them as soon as possible.” He held them up as though he had to prove to her that he had them.
Cherish exhaled, relieving the burning in her lungs. “Please set them on my desk. With everything that I have going on right now, the last thing I need is to have my work scattered around. What about sending out the invites for my meeting in two weeks?”
“Sent this afternoon. You should have a copy in your e-mail in-box. I also took the liberty of setting up your cabin reservations for the company executive retreat.”
“You’re taking part in Mr. Utterman’s weekend excursion?” Vonda crossed her arms over her chest as she stared at Cherish with her mouth agape.
Cherish couldn’t believe how easily Vonda managed to switch between her real persona and her business one. Just minutes earlier, her friend cursed like a Tourette’s sufferer.
“Something wrong with that if I do?”
Vonda cleared her throat before speaking. “I would prefer my stellar performance, the accounts I secure for this company, and the money I make for Stratum to gain me notice as opposed to a business bonding session.”
Bonding session. If her best friend only knew.
Perry faced Vonda. “If I may, ma’am, participating in activities like these set up by our CEO could only further her career.” Perry glanced down at Cherish for a moment before returning his gaze to Vonda.
“You might be right. I just can’t imagine kayaking, hiking, and building fires as a way to get closer to the boss.” Vonda spun her now empty water bottle between her hands.
The crackling sounds from the plastic bottle sounded like what Cherish had imagined the campfire would sound with its popping and clicking. She hadn’t thought about the trip at all until Perry took it upon himself to make her reservations. Could she actually spend time in the woods away from her normal routine?
She stared at her friend’s hands until Vonda’s voice broke her out of her daydream.
“You are way too soft and tender to do something as rough as this.”
At the mention of the word “rough,” Cherish swallowed hard and kept her gaze away from Perry, feeling like he could read her thoughts and knew the intimate fantasy filling her mind.
“If you change your mind about the excursion, I can speak with your assistant to match accommodations with Ms. Burke’s.”
Vonda chuckled. “That’s awfully nice of you, but my assistant is very competent. Whatever I decide to do, she’ll be able to handle it.”
Perry responded with a slight nod.
“I don’t know if I’m going.” Cherish lowered her gaze. She gnawed on her lower lip before raising her head to connect her stare with Perry’s.
Perry’s glare melted her bones into butter.
Cherish had to regain her composure, a semblance of her control. “I haven’t decided yet.” She cleared her throat. “I have lots of work. Lots of projects that need my attention. Taking a weekend off seems a bit frivolous.”
Cherish interrupted his response. “End of discussion. My colleague is right to a certain extent. My performance should speak for itself. I shouldn’t have to frolic in the woods to prove anything. And I don’t appreciate you taking it upon yourself to decide what’s best for me and my career. You’re my assistant, not my boss or—” She hesitated, nearly blurting the one title that would crumble her, make her burst into flames, excite her.
Perry raised his left eyebrow and released a long breath through his nostrils.
Cherish sat up straighter once she realized how much her shoulders had slumped. She pointed to the bundle in his hands. “Leave them on my desk next to the presentation folders that should have come in today.” She stared at Perry, who, although he continued staring back at her, wore a forlorn expression. “The folders did arrive today, right?”
“I’ll check on the order again, ma’am.”
Cherish released a very unprofessional growl that characterized her irritation. “You told me that yesterday. And you assured me that the folders would be here today.”
“Yes, ma’am. I apologize. I was preparing other items for your Diamond Unique project and this one aspect slipped my mind.”
“It’s one missed thing that could make me come off as unprepared.” She shook her head. “Am I giving you too much work? Is multitasking not your thing?”
“Again, I apologize. I thought I knew what you would want.”
“I just need you to do what I ask. That’s it. Is that clear?”
He nodded and remained quiet.
His silence forced Cherish to wring her hands, stretching the skin until they burned. “I should be finished here shortly. Please have an answer on those supplies by the time I return to my office.”
He offered a smile. “If you need me, Miss Burke, I’ll be at my desk.”
Just as he turned to leave, Cherish blurted, “Have you eaten your lunch yet? I mean, I hope you didn’t wait for me to—”
“I’m fine, ma’am.” He smiled, and all the pictures on the walls, the tables around them, and the chairs melted.
Or maybe Cherish had finally lost her mind. She blinked a couple of times before she refocused.
“Thank you for thinking of me.” He turned and hurried out of the break room.
Her gaze automatically dropped down to his ass. God, what an ass.
As though picking up on Cherish’s lecherous thoughts, Vonda said, “Sucks that he’s gay.”
“He’s not gay.” Cherish crossed her legs. “That I know for sure,” she mumbled.
Cherish shook her head. “Nothing.”
“You were really hard on him. I guess the little nickname your former assistants gave you was right on the money.”
Cherish picked up her utensils again, but her appetite had vanished. Being hard on Perry had nothing to do with perpetrating a myth. She had a standard to maintain. She couldn’t be known as a pushover, not at work.
“Look at that. Your assistant comes up, and you get all straight and rigid.” Vonda nudged Cherish’s arm. “I mean, look at you. It’s Friday and you’re still in a suit with your pearls on and your hair in a bun. You can relax. It is casual Friday.” To punctuate that fact, Vonda leaned back to show off her very laid-back black denim jeans and her fitted top that showed more cleavage than someone in her position should expose.
Cherish smoothed her hand over her skirt that hid her thick thighs. “I like my outfit. I want to be respected. People expect me to dress like this.”
Cherish remained mum. She stared at the remaining salad left on her plate as she pondered over her words.
“You need to loosen up, sistafriend. There’s a whole world out there. The job is great and all. But woman cannot exist on work alone. You have to let loose and have some fun, right?” Vonda nudged her friend with her elbow and winked.
“I have more than just work.”
“What? I never see you do anything.”
Cherish pushed back from the table and lifted her tray. “I don’t have to do every social event with you. And I certainly don’t have to tell you everything about my life.”
“No, you don’t. But as your friend, I want to know that you’re happy. Hey, why don’t you come on out with me tonight? I’m going to be hitting this hot new club down at the oceanfront. Supposed to be the spot.”
“Hmm, braving the nightlife in Virginia Beach during the summer. I’ll pass.”
Vonda opened her mouth to protest, but Cherish cut her off. “But you have fun. If I don’t see you before the end of the day, have a great weekend.”
At approximately 5:01 tonight, Cherish would live the life that Vonda didn’t know about, couldn’t know about, ever. Every week, Cherish looked forward to Friday. That was when she truly thrived.
* * *
Perry walked into the firestorm that was Cherish’s office. As usual, she had someone on speakerphone, a Bluetooth connection in her ear, and was texting on a device in her hands. Machines probably envied her method to perform several tasks at one time.
Although anxious to start his weekend, as instructed, he reported to his boss’s office and waited for her to acknowledge him.
The waiting. One thing he could pride himself on had to be his incredible patience. If not for that, he would have left this boardroom diva after the first day. Well, more like the first hour.
He couldn’t leave, wouldn’t leave. His body wouldn’t allow it. Her strength drew him and kept him captive. Each day he watched her, Perry picked up little clues about this voluptuous tyrant. When she glanced his way, he licked his lips.
Cherish turned her back on him to look out her office window. No doubt in Perry’s mind—she saw his gesture.
“I don’t care what it takes. Get me the numbers. Get me the deal. Get the hell off my phone.” She pressed a button on the side of the device in her ear, then pulled it out and tossed it on her desk. She then directed her attention to the phone on her desk. “Did you catch that, Don?”
“I need more time,” a hesitant male voice replied after a beat.
“Then you need another company.” She slammed her finger on the phone, more than likely to disconnect the call.
Her thumbs furiously punched keys to text a message, probably just as harsh, to the lucky one that wouldn’t be subjected to a verbal spanking.
While keeping her gaze on her handheld device, Cherish said, “Folders.”
Perry blinked as though a storm he’d been watching had finally passed. “Coming tomorrow morning. I verified.”
She glared at him for a moment. The connection in that split second sent a ripple over his flesh. He’d never felt such a strong attraction to a woman like this. Her race had nothing to do with it. Perry liked the fact that she knew what she wanted.
“So, Saturday. Will you be here to get them?” Cherish set the electronic gadget on her desk and put a fist on her ample hip.
“Interns are working over the weekend to straighten out our files. I’ve designated one to keep an eye out for them and leave them on my desk.”
“Have you been here long enough to tell other people what to do?”
“It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been here. If something needs to get done, I make sure it happens.” He cleared his throat. “Besides, I have the countenance to lead.”
She tucked a stray hair behind her ear. “I need you—”
“Yes?” He stepped forward.
She cleared her throat. “I need you to do some research.”
He hoped she would utter some other statement, make some sort of acknowledgement on how she really felt about him. He had to keep his head in business.
“Dig up whatever you can on Diamond Unique. I want to see it all. Sales numbers, advertisements, board members, everything.”
“Anything I should be looking for in this sweep?” He cocked his head.
“Just what I said. They’re my client. I need to know all about them. I need to see how the consumers view them.”
“Because to you it matters what others think, right?”
Her silence consumed the room.
Perry broke the tension and said, “I’ll have whatever you need. Would you like for me to work on this over the weekend?”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Work on it Monday.”
“Thank you for allowing me my weekend.” He nodded. “It’s almost five o’clock, ma’am.”
Cherish placed both hands on top of her mile-long glass-top desk and sank into her chair. The air in the room stilled as though every molecule waited for Perry’s next words.
Before speaking again, he clasped his hands behind his back, which pushed out his chest. The motion of Cherish’s gaze dropping to his chest for a brief moment didn’t escape his notice.
He gripped his hands tighter behind his back to keep from smiling. “If you don’t need anything else from me, well, here—”
Cherish swallowed hard. She parted her lips slightly. If Perry wasn’t mistaken, it sounded like her breathing had increased. Knowing that she seemed to be a bit out of sorts calmed him.
“I’d like to leave now. I have something important to attend to this evening, well, this weekend.”
She cleared her throat. “I know we don’t have a kind of boss-employee relationship that’s—”
“That’s what, ma’am?” Perry took a step toward her.
Cherish sat up straighter. “That’s open.”
“You don’t think so? I’ve picked up your dry cleaning. I’ve provided breakfast, lunch and, sometimes dinner for you, so I know what you like to eat. I’ve even purchased shoes for you. Size eight, right?”
She didn’t move.
So he continued. “I think for the office, that makes us close.”
He winced. “Fair enough.”
“However, I’d like to think that you can share a bit of your life with me. What kind of plans do you have?” She clasped her hands together and connected her gaze to his.
He stared at her to gauge her reaction. Although she didn’t tuck her bottom lip into her mouth, he saw her jaw flex as though she chewed on the soft, fleshy inside of her cheek as she waited for his answer. She wrung her previously stilled hands. Through the glass top, he watched her knee bouncing up and down.
Before he answered, he took a long, deep breath. A smile hitched up at the side of his mouth. “I wish I could talk about it. But I can’t really say.”
At his answer, Cherish released her breath as though she’d been holding it for years. Then she relaxed against her chair. “Fine. Keep it private. It’s probably for the best anyway.”
“What about you? Any special plans?”
Cherish’s bottom lip quivered as though the words she wanted to say stuck in her throat. Just as a noise squeaked through her lips, her phone rang on her desk. She glanced at the display.
Without looking at him, she quickly said, “Be available if I need you this weekend.” Then she waved a dismissive hand to him before answering the call.
“Aren’t I always?” Perry turned and strolled to the door.
Too bad Cherish couldn’t open herself up more. But then again, was he really looking for a relationship?
* * *
Using every bit of concentration contained in her body, Cherish fought the urge to glance down at her wristwatch as she sat in Mr. Utterman’s office five minutes before she needed to walk out the door. And to her, leaving work on time on a Friday constituted a need, a desire.
“How is everything going with the Diamond Unique project?” Utterman positioned his hands in a teepee as he sat behind his battleship-sized mahogany desk.
“Very well, sir. I’m prepared for the upcoming meeting.” She crossed her legs when her clit throbbed, signaling to her that she needed to leave soon.
“I know you are.” He smiled, which deepened the wrinkles around his small mouth and his wide forehead. The light over his desk illuminated his silvery hair that he had combed back and parted to the side. “That’s the one thing I admire about you, Cherish. You are a take-charge kind of woman, um, executive.”
Good thing Cherish had every muscle in her body trained not to overtly respond to condescending remarks. She didn’t even flinch at the “woman” tag Utterman used.
“I’m the kind of team leader you need on your side, sir.”
He nodded. “Yes, you are. Very hands-on. You can shape people like I’ve never seen before. I mean look at your assistant Perry. Sure, he came here with great credentials and he’s always been a hard worker, but something about him working with you has changed him. Have you noticed that?”
At the mere thought that she had somehow been an influential force in Perry’s demeanor, Cherish put her hand to her stomach to push back the fluttering butterflies. “I don’t know about that, Mr. Utterman. I have a standard that I expect to be upheld. With today’s job market, I’m sure Mr. Stone is doing what he can to remain employed.”
The smile slipped from Utterman’s face as though what she said disappointed him. “Don’t cut yourself short. I’m giving you a compliment. I’m telling you that you have a gift for being an effective leader. That should mean something to you.”
The more she stared at her boss, and former mentor, she caught what he wasn’t saying. Utterman must be preparing for his departure and grooming her to take over. As much as she wanted to be excited by the prospect, she didn’t want to come off as a vulture picking over a carcass.
“It does, especially coming from you.” She took a deep breath before broaching a topic that had been eating away at her for the last few weeks. “Although I have my presentation ready, I’m not fully convinced of our direction.”
Utterman furrowed his bushy brows. “Meaning what?”
“We’re giving financial advice to a company that, quite frankly, may be involved in child labor and basic slave labor. Plus the fact that they’re encouraging people to buy diamonds when the economy is in the toilet.”
“I understand your concern; however, we have an obligation to our client to represent their interests, not be a morality monitor. Truthfully, we don’t know if those rumors about their operating practices are true. I would suggest that you don’t delve into the matter.”
“I don’t know if I can do that. I have to know who I’m working so hard for. If they’re involved in something unsavory, that could have an adverse effect on Stratum.” Although she didn’t need or even want to debate this idea with Utterman right now, Cherish had let this fear eat at her for weeks.
“That’s why we have a coterie of attorneys. You let them worry about protecting our image. You concern yourself about doing the best job for our client.” During this tense exchange, her boss offered her a smile. “Besides, wouldn’t you hate to be judged on what people perceive about you rather than getting to know you?”
Her boss’s query had more of an underlying meaning than just being about their client. She had no desire to bring up any insecurities about her career or, especially, about her private life. As usual, she would have to come to terms with any issues on her own.
“I guess some things, if they were true, should remain in the dark.” She offered a slight smile to show compliance.
“I’m not asking you to change yourself. Sometimes you have to wear a mask in order to accomplish your goal, satisfy all parties. I know you understand that, right?”
Cherish stood. “As always, I will not let you or Stratum down. I take my position seriously.”
“It’s an admirable trait.” Utterman sat back in his chair.
“I hate to run on you, sir, but I have—”
“I hear you’re contemplating not going to this year’s retreat.”
Perry and his big mouth. So much for an assistant’s loyalty. “I’m still thinking about it. Camping is not my thing.”
“Give it some serious thought. It would be a shame not to have you there with the other executives.”
Message received, loud and clear.
“I understand.” She turned to the door.
“By the way, where should Lena and I go to dinner tonight?”
Cherish brought her attention back to Utterman. This was a normal Friday exchange for them. He would ask her for advice on where he and his wife should go to dinner, and sometimes even take suggestions for their weekend plans. She actually found their ritual to be sort of cute and expected after so much time.
“I suggest Terigi’s on Center Drive. They have the best pasta dishes.”
Cherish thought about the location of that restaurant and quickly amended her suggestion. “Or better yet, you can go down to the oceanfront and do Swim and Steer. Sounds like a funny name for a restaurant, but they do the best seafood and steak.”
“And your suggestion there?” Utterman’s smile widened. He raised his hand and rested his chin on his fist. The position showed off his MedicAlert bracelet.
“For you, a tuna steak. Better for you.” She nodded to his hand to acknowledge that she remembered the man had had four heart attacks in a span of ten years. “For your wife, they have an extensive wine list. The woman can’t be sober being married to you all of these years.”
“You’re right about that.” Her joke released a long belly laugh from her boss. “Very good. I’ll head down there then. Have a great weekend. Don’t work too hard.”
At the door, she said her good-bye to her boss. In her mind, it was also a good-bye to the straitlaced, uptight woman who ruled with an iron fist. Now she would be a different person. The thought of Perry betraying her trust had to be pushed out of her mind in order for her to enjoy her weekend.
* * *
In the Westin elevator car, Cherish jammed her thumb on the twenty button. She continued pressing the lit button even though it signaled it registered her destination. It had taken her several tries to coordinate swiping the room-key card she’d picked up at the front desk and getting that damn floor button to light up and stay lit. It didn’t help that her hands trembled.
At her floor the elevator dinged and waited a beat before opening its doors. Cherish took a deep breath and managed to slip between the doors before they closed. She glanced at the envelope that held the key card to confirm the room number.
Outside the door, she held up the card over the reader by the knob. She could have opened the door on her own and waltzed inside. But it wouldn’t have been right. She knew why she had the card. She had it to get up to the floor. At this moment, once she knocked, her life as she knew it would change as it did every week at about this time.
She raised her fist into the air and knocked on the door. It felt like decades passed before she heard the tumblers in the door handle turning. Cherish raised her gaze to eye level. Once she established eye contact she could go on with the rest of the night and weekend.
The door opened. Standing on the other side stood Perry, shirtless and staring at her. His now slicked-back hair showed off the strong jawline that defined his face. He held on to the doorknob as he stared at her.
Every Friday for months, Perry would give Cherish that look. And every Friday, she felt the same way. The jittery feeling in her belly remained until she did what she knew she had to do to start this weekend right, the proper way. His way.
In one slow, smooth motion, Cherish lowered herself to her knees in the hallway outside the door. She didn’t care if there was a hallway full of people or what it looked like to anyone else. Cherish Burke no longer existed.
“Good evening, Sir.” She crawled through the doorway on her hands and knees.
“Hello, Little Lamb.”
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