Rihanna frowned at the figures on the screen. It was going to take a while to get her bank balance to look anything like healthy again. In her job, that wasn’t a good thing—the bank manager with the humungous overdraft!
Her wedding dress hadn’t fetched half what she’d paid for it, and the fancy hotel had refused to refund her a single penny for the canceled reception, despite the fact that they’d gotten months to find another couple to take their place. She wished now that she hadn’t been so keen to pay it all off early. Had she paid in monthly installments, she’d have saved over a thousand dollars on the cost of the venue, but she could never bear to be in debt. “Never a borrower or a lender be,” her dad had instilled into her from an early age, and she’d lived her whole life by the motto.
Phil Cartwright had been the love of her life—and now he was the bane of it.
“At least he didn’t jilt you at the altar,” Mum had said, sympathetically.
Rihanna half-wished he had. At least then everyone would see for themselves what a cruel, heartless bastard he was. And she’d have gotten the chance to wear that gorgeous dress and show off her new figure. But the humiliation of him turning her down in front of everyone—or, worse still, not turning up—would have been insufferable. Almost as bad as having to return all the gifts and explain to everyone that the wedding was off.
Of course, they’d all been sorry for her, which just compounded the situation. She hated pity about as much as she hated Phil Cartwright right now. That sorrowful expression of his haunted her dreams, as well as every waking moment.
“I’m really sorry, but it’s just not going to work,” he’d told her softly.
Oddly enough, he’d omitted to mention that it wasn’t going to work out with her because he already had someone else waiting on the sidelines—someone much richer and more sophisticated than Rihanna could ever hope to be. That much didn’t become apparent until way after he’d moved out and left her to deal with the fallout. Bastard. She’d spent weeks believing it was her own fault, that she hadn’t been good enough for him. She’d even begged him to give her another chance, for God’s sake!
This promotion couldn’t have come at a better time. She’d moved all her belongings into storage, packed a bag and headed out into the middle of nowhere to begin a new life—not where she wanted to be, of course, but at least she was away from Phil Cartwright and all her sympathetic, well-meaning friends and family.
She looked around the hotel room the company had put her up in. It was nice enough—clean, with high ceilings and dark wooden furniture. Not quite as good as she’d have had in New Moldington, but then, she was no longer in the city. Far from it…literally. This was Almondine in Cavern County. It had been described on the net as ‘a busy town with everything a person could need’. Yeah, right. She wouldn’t count on that.
The new job was in a place called Pelican’s Heath, a few miles down the road. She’d been told it was more rural there and had been highlighted as ‘a small up-and-coming town with lots of potential’. Yet it didn’t even have a decent hotel for the bank to accommodate her in! Not that she’d want to stay too close to where she worked, anyway—not in her position. She was the boss and needed to be seen as such at all times, not be caught socializing with staff and customers during her downtime.
Talking of her new position, she noticed the clock by the bed as she checked that her hair was neatly tucked into a bun. Only a quarter to seven? That couldn’t be right, surely? She went over to the coffee table where she’d left her cell charging. Half past eight? Shit! She was about to be late for her first day. What sort of impression would that give everyone?
She threw her laptop into its case, grabbed her phone and handbag and charged out of the door. She’d complain to reception later about the damn clock.
* * * *
The country roads were narrow and bumpy, jostling her about like a baby’s rattle. She wondered why she’d even bothered to spend so long on her hair this morning. It was bound to be a hot mess by the time she got to work. At least her makeup looked good today, and she was pleased with her choice of skirted suit.
The roads became progressively worse as she neared Pelican’s Heath, and it was nearly impossible to maintain a decent speed. She dreaded to think how filthy her car would be by now and considered whether the bank would be likely to pay her extra for wear and tear of her vehicle.
As she rounded a tight bend, she screamed and swerved the car right off the road. A massive horse reared up in front of her, its rider holding on for dear life as he steered the beast away from her car and steadied it a short way farther along.
Rihanna’s heart beat wildly. She put her head in her hands, slumping over the steering wheel in relief and shock. She didn’t dare imagine the damage an animal of that size could have done to her precious car—and she’d have a hard time claiming against her insurance. Furthermore, it could have killed her!
The thought riled her, and she looked over to see that a guy in a cowboy hat was strutting toward her. He’d secured the horse to a tree, a little way from the road.
She quickly got out of the car to await his apology—which would have to be good.
“Well, I see you’re all right, then,” the guy fired at her.
She stared at him. “I’m not so sure about my car, though,” she snapped.
“Your car? That heap of metal? What about my poor living, breathing horse?”
“That lump of meat shouldn’t have been on the road!” she yelled. “Roads are for cars. That’s why I was driving on it.”
“Where the hell are you from, lady?” He gawped at her in disbelief. “Firstly, horses used the roads long before cars were invented, and secondly, you do realize you’re in Cavern County, don’t you?”
“Oh, I’m well aware of where I am, thank you,” she scorned. “In the back of beyond with a stupid redneck who thinks he and his livestock own the fucking road.”
He looked slightly taken aback, then furious. He clenched his jaw tightly, making cute dimples appear in his cheeks.
Her whole body heated as she took in his appearance for the first time. He sure was handsome, even if he was a cowboy. He had dark eyes and, from what she could see around his hat, very dark, wavy hair. He was clean-shaven and had a full mouth with perfect teeth. Not exactly what she’d expected from a local.
“What makes you think I don’t own this road?” he asked, his eyes flashing at her.
She swallowed hard. It was just possible that he did. After all, the land around here could conceivably be owned by the farmers and ranchers rather than a local council. “Well, if you do, I’d like to have a word with you about the dire state of it,” she replied, sticking her nose in the air. “It’s clearly not signed as private property, which means you’ll be liable for the damage all the loose stones and potholes have caused my car. If you’d just give me your name, I’ll be getting my lawyers to contact you.”
He gaped at her. “You’ve got to be kidding me?”
“Do I look like I’m joking? I’ve got every right to sue for the damage caused by your lack of maintenance of the road.”
He shook his head. “You really are something, lady.”
“And you’re delaying me from getting to work.” She suddenly remembered the tearing hurry she was in.
A huge grin covered his face, making him look even more handsome. He waved a hand to indicate the horse and her car. “Are you sure all this wasn’t just a ruse for you to ask my name?”
Her face flushed as anger and embarrassment mingled to what she knew would probably be a bright hue of scarlet.
“What?” she demanded, not quite as assertively as she’d hoped.
“Ace Blenheim,” he replied, grinning even more as he studied her. “And you are…?”
“Late.” She quickly got back into her car, knowing full well that he was amused at her blushes. Not that it had been any kind of trick, of course, but there was no way of explaining that to him.
He was still chuckling as she started the engine, and she seethed as she drove gingerly past him and into Pelican’s Heath. She’d had enough of being humiliated.
By the time she’d reached the bank, she’d already planned all the ways she could exact revenge on the smarmy redneck. At least she had his name. All she had to do was check to see if he had applied for an account at the new bank in town. She hoped so. It would give her great pleasure to turn him down.
Rihanna was embarrassed to find two people in smart clothes waiting by the door. She’d really hoped to arrive before the staff, today of all days. A large sign was plastered across the window of the bank proclaiming ‘Opening Today’.
“Good morning. I’m Rihanna Richards,” she told them politely, taking the key from her purse and unlocking the large door.
“I’m Sarah, and this is Paul,” the woman said officiously.
Rihanna stood back to let them enter first. They were both quite a bit older than she was, assuming Paul to be in his fifties, while Sarah was possibly mid-forties. She wondered whether they might have a problem working with someone as young as she was. Still, there was nothing she could do about it now. They’d been hired without her input and would all just have to make the best of the situation.
She was pleasantly surprised at the light, airy building, with modern equipment and blonde wood furnishings. It had occurred to her that a place like Pelican’s Heath might be full of musty old buildings and dark wood fixtures. It probably was, she surmised—just not in here.
She locked the door behind them while Sarah drew up the blinds and Paul took his seat behind the counter. Rihanna had read their résumés and knew they were both experienced tellers, so at least she wouldn’t have to get involved in staff training and suchlike.
A door marked ‘Manager’ stood to the side of the room, while the staff room was behind the counter, down a short corridor.
She went straight into her office and was immediately greeted by the smell of rose-scented polish. Like the rest of the building, her fittings were all blonde wood, including the large desk that dominated the room.
After putting her purse in her bottom desk drawer, she went back out to see how her staff was faring.
“Is it okay to open?” Sarah asked, walking toward the front door.
“I’ll do it.” She cut her off and went straight back to unlock the door they had just entered through.
She took a deep breath for a second. This was her very own branch and, although it wasn’t exactly in the location she’d have preferred, it still carried some kudos.
“Good morning.” She greeted a couple of men who were waiting outside.
One of them checked his watch. She narrowed her eyes. Although she was supposed to encourage as many of the locals as possible to open accounts here, there were one or two whom she already had serious doubts about. Here was number two.
She watched them go up to the counter. Mr. Williamson, the area manager, had ensured that the new staff had been briefed, and he’d already gone through all their duties with them when he’d hired them.
“Morning, Geoff.” Paul was local and would obviously know some of the customers already.
Sarah was a little more quiet, having recently moved to Pelican’s Heath. She seemed efficient enough, however, and Rihanna guessed she’d probably be friendlier once she got to know a few people.
She, on the other hand, had no intention of getting acquainted with the locals of Cavern County, except on a professional level. This was not her home, and as far as she was concerned, it would never be.
The sooner she made her mark and proved to Mr. Williamson that she was more than capable of running her own branch, the better. He’d promised to consider her for a bigger branch in the city, and that was the job she really wanted. Pelican’s Heath was merely a steppingstone.
She smirked as she heard the time-conscious customer ask Sarah for an application form to open a new account. He turned back to look at her, and Rihanna guessed that Sarah had just informed him that she was the manager and the person who needed to sanction his request. His face fell. Maybe she would enjoy working here, after all.
The leather swivel-chair in her office was sumptuous, and she raised the seat a little to adjust it to her liking. At five foot four, she wasn’t especially tall and didn’t want customers to look down on her when they sat in the chair opposite hers.
A big pile of mail had been heaped onto her desk, presumably by the cleaner, and she started to sort through it. Most of it would be application forms for new accounts, and she knew that hundreds of people had already transferred theirs here from Almondine. Having a bank at Pelican’s Heath was a novelty to the community, and she could see they were keen to exploit it.
Her phone rang and she smiled. As she’d thought, it was Sarah.
“Hi, Miss Richards, I’ve got a gentleman here who needs to open a new account with us as soon as possible. He has completed his form. Would you be free to consider it now, please?”
Rihanna quickly opened a drawer and stuffed the pile of mail inside. She didn’t want to look disorganized in front of Mr. What-time-do-you-call-this?
“Of course, send him straight through, would you, Sarah?”
She smiled, looking forward to seeing his expression when he realized how much power she had around here. Her supercilious grin was soon wiped from her face, however, when a certain dark-haired cowboy opened her door.