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Friendship on Fire

By:Melissa Foster


Chapter One


RILEY BANKS HURRIED down Thirty-Seventh Street in her red Catherine Malandrino dress and Giuseppe Zanotte leopard-print, calf-hair pumps. It was the week after Thanksgiving, and Manhattan was buzzing with the feverish zeal of the holidays. Riley slowed her pace to catch her breath. Tomorrow I’ll find the courage to take the subway. Maybe. She tugged her coat tighter across her chest to ward off the chilly air and silently hoped that nobody would figure out that she’d purchased her outfit on Outnet.com, an online designer outlet store. She felt like such a hypocrite, heading to her first day at her new job as one of world-renowned designer Josh Braden’s assistants wearing discounted clothing. The thought turned her stomach—but not as much as showing up in her hometown jeans and cowgirl boots would have. She was a long way from Weston, Colorado, and she’d spent the last few weeks gathering discount designer clothes and practicing omitting “y’all” from her vocabulary.

She stood before the thick glass door of Josh Braden Designs and took a deep breath. The sign above the door read, JBD. This is it. She closed her eyes for a split second to repeat the mantra she’d been playing in her mind like a broken record for weeks: I’m educated, knowledgeable, and eager. I can do this.

A warm hand on her lower back pulled her from her thoughts.

“Have any trouble finding us?” Josh Braden stood beside her with a friendly smile and perfectly shorn, thick dark hair. His black Armani suit fit his lean, muscular frame perfectly. A few years earlier, he’d been named one of America’s Most Eligible Bachelors. Back then she hadn’t given the magazine cover a second thought. He was in New York, and she was back in Colorado, so far removed from him that she’d still thought of him as Josh Braden, the boy she’d had a crush on for too many years to count. Now, standing on the streets of New York City beside the man whose name rivaled Vera Wang, she felt the air sucked from her lungs.

His deep voice sent a shiver right through her. Not only had she had the good fortune to be reconnected with Josh when he was back home visiting his family, but during his visit, the two of them had also spent a few days getting reacquainted. Riley hadn’t been sure if it was her crush going haywire or if there was something more real blossoming between them, but those few days had each felt a little more intimate than the last. And while their lips never touched and their bodies remained apart, she’d felt like they were always one breath away from falling into each other’s arms.

“Uh…ye…no.” Oh God, please kill me now.

Josh smiled, lighting up his brown eyes. “Nervous?”

At five foot eight, she was a full seven inches shorter than him. She wondered what it might be like to stand on her tiptoes and kiss those luscious lips of his. Stop it! The way he held her gaze brought goose bumps to her arms. Stopitstopitstopit. She envisioned him at seventeen; he’d reached his full height by then, thin but well muscled, with testosterone practically oozing from his pores. She’d wanted him then, but those schoolgirl feelings didn’t come close to the desire that begged to be set free now. She cast her eyes away and took a deep breath, trying to ignore her thundering heart. The last thing she needed was to become one of those girls who swooned every time her boss appeared. She was here to build a career, not a reputation.

“A little,” she answered honestly.

He pulled the heavy door open and waited for her to walk through before placing his hand on the small of her back once again. Josh spoke softly, his mouth close to her ear as he guided her through the expansive lobby.

“Think of this as Macy’s back home. There’s the customer service area.” He nodded toward the elegant mahogany and granite reception desk.

Her heels clacked across the marble tile as they passed the desk.

“Good morning, Chantal.” Josh smiled at the blond woman behind the desk, who looked like she’d come straight from an eight-hour session at a local salon. Her hair glistened, and her green eyes were perfectly shadowed to match her emerald- green blouse.

Riley reached up and touched her shoulder-length brown hair, feeling the little confidence she’d mustered being whittled away. If the receptionist is that perfect, what are the other employees like?

“Good morning, Mr. Braden,” Chantal said with a practiced smile. “Good morning, Riley.”

You know my name? Riley pushed past her rattled nerves, forcing her mouth to obey her thoughts, and felt the grace of a smile. “Good morning…Chantal.” She pulled her shoulders back, reclaiming a bit of her lost confidence. She knows my name!

“Chantal is an assistant in the design studio. She fills in for our receptionist when she steps away from her desk. I’m sure you’ll see her in the design studio later,” Josh explained.

Riley felt like she was in a dream as she walked beside Josh through the elegant offices. She’d spent years dreaming of what it might feel like to work in New York City, and more specifically, in a design studio. After graduating with a degree in fashion design with a 3.8 GPA and winning two design awards, she’d longed to move to New York City and land a job in the hub of the fashion industry. After several months of applying for positions and receiving enough rejection letters to wallpaper her bedroom, Riley had given up and settled into her life in Weston, working at Macy’s and designing clothes no one would ever see. Riley had come to accept that working in the fashion industry had more to do with connections than skills. She’d given up that dream until Jade had begun dating Rex, one of Josh’s older brothers, and she’d worn one of Riley’s dresses on their first date. One recommendation from Rex, and Josh had eagerly reviewed her portfolio. A few days later, Riley was having lunch at his father’s ranch, and the next thing she knew, she had a job offer and was packing to move to New York City. Now, as she walked beside Josh, Riley wondered if he was thinking about the time they’d spent together as much as she was.

They rounded a hall and Riley stifled a gasp. Racks of designer clothing lined the walls; dozens of fabric samples were strewn across long drawing tables, and sketches littered an entire wall. The combination sent her pulse soaring. Men and women milled about, talking quietly and fingering through the samples. A woman wearing jeans, her jet-black hair cut short, pulled a rolling cart filled with clothes across the floor. A man scurried around her with a notebook in hand, talking into an earpiece.

Without thinking, Riley grabbed Josh’s arm—as if they were back in Weston at a farm show and he were Jade. “Oh my goodness. This is amazing!” she exclaimed.

He laughed, and several eyes turned in their direction.

Riley cringed. She must have looked like an excited child seeing Santa for the first time.

“I’m sorry,” she said, frantically patting down Josh’s suit sleeve. “I just…I’m so sorry.” God, I’m an idiot.

“That’s the kind of reaction I’d hoped for,” he said.

She let out a relieved sigh as a tall, auburn-haired woman appeared at Josh’s side and locked her green eyes on Riley, then drew them down her dress, over her curvy figure, all the way to her heels.

“This must be Riley Banks?” She extended a pencil-thin arm in Riley’s direction. “Claudia Raven, head design assistant.”

Claudia’s forced smile and threatening gaze reminded Riley of Cruella De Vil. There was no mistaking the way she pressed her right shoulder into Josh’s back. Riley thought she saw him flinch, but his eyes never wavered from her, his smile never faltered, and she realized that she must have been projecting her own bodily response onto him. Every ounce of Riley’s cognitive thought screamed, Run! Run far and fast. She wanted to flee from the awful woman who, by the look in her evil eyes, already hated her. The woman who silently staked claim to Josh. Instead, Riley forced a smile and took her hand in a firm grip.

“I’m honored to be working with you,” she said, and tucked away any lingering thoughts about Josh. She needed a career, not a Fatal Attraction situation.





JOSH STIFLED A FLINCH at the feel of Claudia against him. She’d made no bones about being open to sleeping her way to the top, and while at first he’d found her innuendos comical, recently he’d begun to loathe them. But she was a dedicated worker and had been with JBD for five years, the last two as the head design assistant. She hadn’t slept her way to that position. Josh had better scruples than that, even if to an outsider Claudia might appear to be the “right” kind of woman for him. He couldn’t deny that she was attractive, intelligent, and she knew the design business inside and out. But Josh had seen the other side of Claudia—the manipulative, competitive-to-the-point-of-nasty side—and those were qualities that Josh was not looking for in a lover. As the niece of one of his oldest supporters, Josh felt trapped by loyalty to keep her on staff.

He was impressed by Riley’s steely, though professional, reserve. He doubted that Claudia or anyone else could tell that her smile was forced. They couldn’t know that the way her lips pulled tightly at the corners was different from the casual, natural smile Riley usually possessed. And they wouldn’t notice the underlying discomfort in her hazel eyes, the discomfort that Josh recognized and longed to soothe.

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