Childhood neighbors and friends turned business partners, Nichelle Wright and Wolfe Diallo make a successful management consulting team. Yet Nichelle knows charming ladies' man Wolfe too well to want anything more. Until wooing a lucrative new client requires them to masquerade as husband and wife. And with one heated glance across a Parisian hotel room, "strictly platonic" explodes in an inferno of long-denied desire.
For years, Wolfe has kept sexy, ambitious Nichelle on a pedestal. Suddenly she's in his bed, and for the first time he's the one wanting more. Playing at man-and-wife is all too satisfyinguntil a business rival plants seeds of mistrust. Wolfe knows he and Nichelle can never be just friends again. Is this the end, or a smoldering new beginning?
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Nichelle Wright turned at the sound of her name, pivoting on the heels of her teal Louboutin stilettos. "What can I help you with, Steve?"
Steve Brooks stood in the middle of the well-lit hallway of Kingston Consulting with his shirtsleeves rolled up and his tie loosened, although it was just past ten in the morning. He shoved his hands in his pockets and relaxed his stance, as if he had all day to waste Nichelle's time.
She tapped the manila folder she carried against her thigh and quirked an eyebrow, wordlessly telling him to hurry it along.
Steve finally started talking. "About the Trestle presentation you did this morning, Nichelle. Can you break something else down for me ?"
Nichelle heard a door click open behind her, far enough away that she knew it was her business partner's office at the end of the hallway. She'd always teased him that for someone who was so friendly and sociable, he was giving mixed signals by taking the office farthest from everyone. Hers was at the opposite end of the hall, in the thick of things.
She glanced over her shoulder. Wolfe Diallo stood in the doorway, getting ready to walk a woman toward the elevators. He was dressed for a day of meetings, his solid six and a half feet clad in a gray three-piece suit. His head looked freshly shaved, and the goatee framing his mouth was crisp and on point, as always. He was a model businessman. Emphasis on model. His gorgeous looks made the men between the covers of Vogue Hommes International look like toothless hobos.
The woman with him wasn't dressed for business, though. Her voluptuous frame was on display in a tight white dress and red screw-me pumps that gleamed with a suggestive, wet shine. Nichelle's lips twitched.
She caught Wolfe's eye as he walked toward her with the woman by his side. Nichelle tipped her head toward his now closed office door. He paused and said something to the woman, brushed her cheek with his and gave her a brilliant smile. A dismissal. The woman's own smile dimmed, but she still looked up at Wolfe with a mixture of hunger and aloofness. Come get me but don't think I'm needy. A true talent.
"Excuse me, Steve." Nichelle returned her full attention to him. "Come to my office a little later if you want to talk more about the project. I'll be around." She met his eyes, daring him to push forward with his obvious delaying tactic. "Okay?"
"Sure." He looked briefly panicked, darting his gaze to the woman with Wolfe.
Nichelle dismissed him and headed down the hallway. As she passed the woman, she nodded, but only got a cold look in return. She felt more than saw the wide doe eyes flickering over her uniform, or what she considered her uniformwhite blouse and calf-length black pencil skirt. Her green heels matched her optimistic and peaceful mood.
"Good morning, Wolfe." She walked into the office past him, her shoulder brushing the lapel of his pewter Zegna suit.
The office was cozy and warm, like his den at home, decorated with imported rugs and rust-colored walls. A large painting of Vermont in autumn dominated one wall. On his bookshelf rested a black Bose speaker dock and matching iPod. Next to them sat a vase of irises, Nichelle's favorite flowers that Wolfe's assistant replaced every few days.
"Is it a good morning, or is it great?" He closed the door behind him with a warm chuckle.
The office smelled like the perfume of the woman who'd just left, something musky and warm. Not unpleasant. Nichelle perched her hip on the edge of the wide window in Wolfe's office and glanced down to the street eight stories below.
"For me, it's only a good one," she said. "But it will be even better once we get on the same page about this potential million-dollar contract." She dropped her manila folder and a thumb drive on his desk then went back to her window perch.
Instantly, Wolfe's stance was all businesshis smile more predatory, the velvet eyes hardened to something like steel. He sat behind his desk. "Tell me more."
She started in on her mini presentation. Once she finished giving him the details of her latest project, a client she planned to go after for their management consulting firm, he grinned with all his teeth. Like a shark on the scent of fresh blood.
"Yes," he said. "You know I want it."
"Good." She crossed her legs and glanced down briefly at the long line of her calf, the arch of her feet dipping into the five-inch stilettos. "The thumb drive has everything I've prepared, including the actual proposal. Once you've looked it overtoday would be lovely" She flashed him her own toothy smile. "I'll put in our bid. There are a few others I have in mind, but this is the biggest and the one we need to focus on for now. We're ready to grow and grow big."
"I agree," Wolfe said. "I trust you. That's one of the main reasons I asked you to come work with me."
Nichelle's lips curled in amusement. He hadn't really asked but rather seduced her into coming to work with him when he'd decided to leave the family business in favor of striking out on his own. Their families had been friends and neighbors for years, but instead of approaching her like a friend, he made her a business proposition. At first, he asked her to come on as a junior partner, someone to spot trends, grow and shape the management consulting firm in a way that made them money but also positioned them in the most advantageous way possible in the market. But she knew her worth and refused his initial offer.
At Sterling Solutions, the firm he'd hired her away from, her success rate was damned near legendary. Sterling had been on the verge of offering her morea bigger office, possibly even a full partnership. Somehow Wolfe found out and raised the dollar amount and incentives with his offer. When she refused him again, he laid out the ultimate prize of an equal partnership at Kingston Consulting, plus an indecently large signing bonus.
"I'm just giving you your money's worth," Nichelle said with a pointed smile.
They both knew he'd made back the money he invested in bringing her on within the first quarter and tripled it by the second. So far, three years later, they were both very happy with the arrangement.
"And speaking of which." She dipped a shoulder toward the door. "We might need to fire Steve Brooks."
Wolfe leaned back in his chair and watched her over steepled fingers. "Of course, if you think it's necessary. Care to let me know why?"
She shook her head, almost amused but not quite. "He was trying to stop me from coming into your office and seeing you with your latest female companion."
There was a persistent rumor around the office that Nichelle and Wolfe were more than business partners. Even after three years of seeing nothing more intimate between them than shared laughter and a few platonic touches, nearly everyone at Kingston Consulting was still convinced they were sleeping together.
"I think under the man code, he was trying to protect you from being caught with another woman right under my na ve and unsuspecting nose."
They exchanged crooked smiles at the thought of her being na ve or gullible enough not to know what Wolfe was up to with his myriad and varied lady friends. "He was being deceptive," she said.
"Depends on how you look at it." Wolfe grinned at her from across the desk. "Another CEO would give him a promotion."
She waved a hand in dismissal. They both knew what kind of CEO Wolfe was. "The corporate version of 'bros before hos'?" she murmured.
"That fool is no bro of mine."
"You should probably let him know that."
It was Wolfe's turn to be dismissive. Steve Brooks wasn't important enough to warrant that sort of conversation. He was a damned good software engineer, and that was the reason they both kept him around, despite his persistent attempts to date every woman in the building. The women saw him as mostly harmless, but if Nichelle ever got an actual complaint about Brooks, he was out on his ass without discussion. No matter how good he was at his job.
Wolfe's cell phone buzzed, and he glanced down at it. "Don't forget about dinner at my parents' place on Friday evening." He tapped the phone to dismiss whatever he saw on the screen. "Mama wanted to make sure you're available and don't have to be off someplace saving the world."
"The only thing I'm out there saving on a regular basis is your ass." Nichelle smiled at the thought of his mother, a petite and fashionable fifty-something woman who'd given birth to thirteen energetic kids and somehow still had the time to successfully fulfill her role as chief operations officer at the family-run Diallo Corporation. "You know I'll be there." She pulled out her iPhone and checked the calendar to be sure. "It's already on the schedule."
"Nice to know we rate a slot in your precious schedule."
"Of course." With a gracious smile, she stood up from her improvised window seat. "You always do."
Wolfe came around his desk to walk her to the door. "By the way, I'll have Kathleen in HR draw up Brooks's dismissal letter today."
She paused in the doorway, her head tilted in consideration. "No, don't do that." After all, Steve Brooks had a sister he was helping put through college. He needed the money. "I'll keep an eye on him for now and let you know what happens."
He nodded. "Keep me in the loop."
"Of course." She walked out into the hall and headed to her own office, mind already on her next meeting. "Later alligator." The heels of her stilettos rang sharply against the hardwood floors with every step.
Wolfe very consciously closed his office door instead of watching Nichelle walk away. She was cripplingly beautiful. And those ridiculously sexy shoes she insisted on wearing every day never failed to stir his interest.
He knew his feelings for her were inappropriate. She was his business partner, the person he trusted more than anyone else on earth. When he was eighteen, he took his father's half-million-dollar antique Bentley without permission. He drove it all over Miami and returned it with, unfortunately, a tiny scratch on the driver's side. His father was furious, demanding the one who stole the car to confess. Wolfe never did. The scar stayed on the car for months before his father eventually grew frustrated and fixed it himself. Nichelle saw Wolfe return the car, though. To this day, she never told a soul. After that, Wolfe trusted her with all his secrets, large and small. She hadn't disappointed him yet.
But in addition to being the keeper of his secrets, Nichelle was also the epitome of walking sex with a genius IQ and a sense of humor that never failed to make him laugh. He'd have to be made of stone not to notice and appreciate everything about her, and he was certainly not made of stone.
At his desk, he reopened the text reminder about dinner from his mother. As always, he felt that uncomfortable mix of love and resentment whenever she reached out to him. Each overture from her seemed like an attempt to make amends for that terrible thing she'd done to the family when Wolfe was sixteen years old.
He didn't trust her.
When he'd needed her the most, she'd packed her bags and left the family for another man, a successful painter who'd taken her away to Vanuatu. She was gone for nearly five months, having disappeared into a place Wolfe hadn't even heard of until his father announced a sudden trip there, then brought her back pregnant and far from penitent.
It was a lapse that no one in the family talked about, not even Wolfe's older brother, Kingsley, who must have noticed the same things Wolfe did. After his mother gave birth to her childa child his father never treated any differentlyshe settled back into the routine of family life as if her five month defection had never happened.
But for Wolfe, it was the single most defining act of his childhood.
He swiped a finger across the phone screen and brought up his mother's number, then sent her a text arranging for them to talk later that day. He was checking in on her. He knew it, and she did, too. It irritated him that after sixteen years, he still had the need to call her at least once a week to see where her head was. As if anything he could say would ever change her mind if she decided to leave the family again. Once she wanted something, there was no stopping her from getting it. That was one of the many things, unfortunately, that they had in common.
Wolfe glanced at the closed door of his office and remembered the sleek silhouette of Nichelle standing in the doorway. Her hourglass figure and sinful shoes. How she had sucked on the inside of her bottom lip as she considered the annoyance that was Steve Brooks.
Now that, he thought, was something he shouldn't want. But he did.
At the end of a long day, Nichelle was finally getting to the last pieces of mail in the secondary pile her assistant sorted for her every morning. It was mostly junk and solicitations addressed just to her. She fanned them out like a bad hand of poker and tipped them in the recycling, reject or respond pile as necessary. She frowned at an envelope from Sterling Solutions marked "private." There was nothing private she had to discuss with Teague Simonson, her former boss, or anyone else at Sterling. But her assistant, following protocol, hadn't opened the envelope. She tore it with her letter opener.
It was a pleasure seeing you at the New York sus-tainability conference last month. I meant what I said about having a place for you to come back to at Sterling. I see the stellar work you've done with Kingston Solutions and want you to come back and work that same magic for us. Nothing less than full partnership and a corner office for you, of course. Let's talk. I'll run some numbers by you and see if we can't come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Nichelle tossed the letter in the recycle pile. She'd already told Teague, at least half a dozen times, that she wasn't interested in leaving Kingston. Now his unwanted communications were just obnoxious, no matter their tone. She wasn't going to respond to this latest one. What was it about certain men that wouldn't let them take no for an answer?
She sighed and glanced at her computer's clock. It was nearly six. Wolfe had left the office an hour before for a late meeting, and most of the staff was already gone. Time for her to head out. Nichelle grabbed her purse from its drawer and reached for her cell phone. Her elbow knocked over the carefully sorted pile of mail.
"Damn!" The letters slid halfway across her desk, some falling on the floor. It was definitely time to go home.
She haphazardly scooped the mail in a pile, determined to deal with it another day. Purse over her shoulder, she quickly left for the parking garage. In her car, she turned on her favorite classic R&B station and eased out into rush hour traffic. Seconds later, her phone rang.
Her sister's face showed up on the small screen. "Hey, Madalie."
"What are you up to?"
"Leaving work, which I'm sure you know."
Her sister giggled. "Yeah, I have you in the sights of my high-powered rifle now. I know exactly what you're doing." Madalie was currently indulging her obsession with spy novels and action movies. Everything was a gun or improbable martial arts metaphor.
"I'm at the beach kickin' it with some nice people. You should come."
Nichelle glanced from the slow traffic outside her window to her dashboard clock. "Do you have any idea what time it is?" It would take her at least forty minutes to get to the beach in that traffic.
"Of course. I was the one who called you after work, remember?"
Nichelle rolled her eyes. "Fine." Madalie had been floating her way through life for a few years now, twenty-four years old and still not knowing what she wanted to do for a career. She had her own place, her own money from the dividends of the stocks her father invested in her name. But her lack of direction and resulting listlessness worried Nichelle.
"Okay. I'll meet you there as soon as I can. You're at the usual place, right?"
"Of course. You know I don't handle change very well."
Half an hour later found Nichelle hiking across the sand with her high heels in hand. It was just past six thirty in the evening. The sky was hung with thick clouds while sunset burned its bright colors across the water. Her calf-length silk skirt and high-collared blouse weren't exactly made for the beach. The outfit was perfect for her perpetually air-conditioned office, but out here, she was more than a little warm. It didn't make sense for her to go home and change, though. For her sister, she'd endure a little discomfort.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved this story about friends turned lovers.
Hope we will get to read about the rest of the Diallo family!