When silence burned his ear, Ben wished he could take the words back.
“I never meant to give Charlie and Vi false hope.”
“Too late. And know what sucks? Mom and Dad will take any kind of hope when it comes to you, and I don’t wanna see them hurt.”
“I’m not a bad guy, Ben.”
“Prove it.” Ben drained his whiskey. “And by my clock your thirty seconds are up.” He hung up and poured himself another drink.
Everything in his life had gone to hell in the last two days and he saw no clear way to fix any of it.
Not a good sign when a smug Turton knocked on her office door before quitting time on Tuesday and made himself comfortable. “Glad to see you’ve recovered from your illness.”
What the heck? He didn’t give a rip about her health. “You’re lucky you didn’t get it.”
“Well, some of us have a stronger constitution than others. I make it a point to take good care of myself so I don’t catch every bug that crawls along.”
Yes, Turton, you are the picture of health with your bony-assed body and pasty complexion. “Was there something you needed?”
“Yes. I’m not sure how to approach this. Saturday evening I stopped into the Golden Boot. Our Jenny was there and she and I started talking…” He picked lint off his sport coat before continuing. “Then I ran into Steve Talbot at the diner Sunday morning. We had breakfast together, which included a pretty interesting conversation.”
She did not like the turd’s need to talk around the subject to build suspense before he got to the point. She really didn’t like that he’d become so friendly with Jenny.
“Interestingly enough, both Jenny and Steve posed the same question to me. A question about you.”
“Me? Why on earth would I be a topic of conversation?”
“That’s what I asked myself. I’ve been so busy doing my job here at the bank, that I pay little attention to office gossip, and even less attention to the small town gossip about the citizens of Sundance.”
Doing my job here at the bank. As if she’d been sitting in the employee break room checking her Facebook page all day rather than working.
“So I’ll admit to being perplexed that both Jenny and Steve mentioned the same thing. Numerous times.”
“That you are involved with Ben McKay.”
Ainsley’s lungs seized up.
“Which wouldn’t be a big deal, since you are both single adults. And if you prefer to sneak around and see him on the sly because he’s got a…questionable reputation with the ladies, that’s your business. So that, in and of itself, didn’t bother me. But when Jenny informed me that Ben McKay had applied for a loan, through you, not through Leslie? And that no one in the office was aware of this loan but you? And you immediately sent the loan application to Denver for approval and priority processing? Well, that did bother me. Quite a bit actually. So much that I spent the entire morning verifying those facts.
“When Steve suggested that you’ve been intimately involved with Ben McKay to get the McKays’ banking business away from Settler’s First…I really didn’t know how to respond, except to agree with him it’s very unprofessional on your part, but not necessarily unethical. Then Steve said he saw you and Ben together, late at night after Chase McKay’s event, and early the next morning, which by my estimation is about a week prior to Ben applying for a loan. And that also brings up the question if you were involved with Ben McKay before you helped arrange the community event for his brother, and if that involvement swayed your recommendation for the bank to donate five thousand dollars to Chase McKay’s foundation.”
This couldn’t be happening.
“I’ll admit I’m shocked, Ainsley. You have a solid reputation.”
“Here’s where you’ll make this supposed scandal go away and allow me to keep my solid reputation intact if I…what? Quit and recommend you take over as bank president?”
His eyes gleamed with pure spite. “I’d never stoop to blackmail. I truly feel this situation needs to be brought to the attention of the management team at the corporate office in Denver.”
Ainsley was infuriated because everything that’d been done on the up and up would now be brought into question. All her actions would be scrutinized. With the bank’s avoidance of scandal, after the fiasco with a nonprofit group that’d felled the man tapped to take the president’s position, she suspected she’d be fired. With jobs so hard to come by in the financial world, she’d be lucky to find another job anywhere in the banking industry.
And admitting her sexual relationship with Ben had ended the day he applied for the loan would be a moot point. Another moot point would be defending her decision to process the loan herself because Leslie had left the office that day due to illness. And yet another moot point would be mentioning she’d sent loan paperwork through herself all the time in her previous bank position. It wasn’t like Ben McKay hadn’t met all the criteria required of every other person who applied for a loan.
All valid points that wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference now.
“I’ve set up a conference call for Thursday.”
Turton stood, wearing a look of fake sympathy she wanted to smack right off his face.
Great plan, Ainsley. Add assault to your charges.
“And not to worry, I will have the utmost discretion with this matter.” But only until it’s resolved and then I’ll gossip with glee, was heavily implied.
She closed the computer programs. Tidied up the papers on her desk. Made a stack of filing to finish so Turton could easily find the files after she got canned. She was half tempted to track down a box for easy transport of her measly personal belongings, so she wouldn’t have to paw through the damn Dumpster on Thursday afternoon.
Jenny knocked on the door. “I’m leaving. Do you need anything else?”
A pause. Then, “Is everything okay?”
You know damn well it isn’t.
“Fine.” Ainsley didn’t look up. While she knew this situation wasn’t Jenny’s fault, she’d definitely played a part in bringing it about.
The door closed quietly.
Ainsley drove home on autopilot. She slipped on pajamas and snuggled with her cats. But even they tired of her tears after a while. Miserable, her red-rimmed gaze swept over her living room. She still had stuff in boxes. That’d make moving easier.
Easier. Right. This was the hardest thing she’d ever have to do.
Ainsley debated on answering the door when Ben knocked. She’d spent the last twenty-four hours in misery, coming to some harsh realizations—about herself, her life and Ben. But she couldn’t postpone the inevitable so she flipped the locks and let him in.
Ben blew right past her. “I went by the bank today but you weren’t there.”
Great. Like she needed more fuel added to the fire by Ben casually stopping by. “I took a personal day.”
“Huh.” Ben yanked off his duster and draped it across the back of the couch.
Huh? That was it? For a man who claimed to be so in tune with her, why hadn’t he noticed her distraction? Her haggard appearance?
Then he was right there, peering into her face with raptness that made her feel as transparent as glass. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“I might be about to lose my job.”
Ben went motionless. “What? Why?”
“It’s about your loan. Turton, the VP, confronted me about it. He got ahold of the paperwork and said it was bogus.”
“Was that why you didn’t go into work today?”
“How did he find out? Not that it matters now, but I should’ve told you the real reason I applied for the loan.”
“What?” Ainsley fought a sense of dread. “What real reason? What did you intend to use the money for if not for furniture equipment and supplies?”
Distractedly, he said, “A down payment on Rielle’s land, actually. She was in a financial bind. Doesn’t hold true now.”
“You lied to me? You lied on the loan application?”
His head snapped up. “Isn’t that what you meant?”
“No! I meant the loan itself was bogus, not the reason for the loan. But my God, this makes it ten times worse!”
“Don’t call me that! Don’t you understand? Turton questioned why I sent your loan paperwork to the head office myself, instead of running it through our loan officer. Like I was trying to hide it because we’ve been sneaking around. Then he brought up Chase’s event. How I pushed for the bank’s sponsorship and donation, and now my motives would be construed as dishonest, given our intimate relationship.”
“This is all bullshit, Ainsley.”
“Is it?” she shot back. “We have been sexually involved on a level that isn’t normal…which makes me even more paranoid because what if people found out what I let you do to me—”
“Let me do to you?” he repeated incredulously. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?
“You know what that means, Bennett.” She paced and the cats scattered. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. Dammit. I haven’t been acting responsibly since the second I donned that stupid wig and waltzed into the Rawhide Club pretending to be someone I’m not.”
“Are you sayin’ you’re sorry we met?”
Ainsley didn’t answer that—she couldn’t. “All Turton’s accusations have a grain of truth that once piled up makes a damn convincing argument about my poor judgment. As bank president, I can’t have poor financial judgment.”
“This Turton guy is just tryin’ to scare you because I—”
“He has scared me. He’s already set up a phone conference with the district manager for tomorrow. So it’s not like he’s blackmailing me. He intends to get me fired.” She continued pacing. “I’ll have to move back to Denver. Although I’m not sure where I’ll live or what I’ll do.”