Her Little Secret, His Hidden Heir

By: Heidi Betts

“We’ve met.”

Marcus’s voice hit her like a sledgehammer to the solar plexus, but it was only one of a series of rapid-fire shocks to her system. Brian had spoken her ex-husband’s name and her stomach had plummeted all the way to her feet. At the same time, Marcus had risen from his seat and turned to face her, and her heart had started to pound against her rib cage like a runaway freight train.

She saw him standing in front of her, black hair glinting midnight blue in the dappled sunlight streaming through the tall, multipaned windows lining one wall of the office, his green eyes gleaming with devilment. Yet his suit-and-tie image wavered and no amount of blinking brought him into focus.

“Hello, Vanessa,” he murmured softly.

Brushing his jacket aside, he slipped his hands into the front pockets of his matching charcoal slacks, adopting a negligent pose. He looked so comfortable and amused, while she felt as though an army of ants was crawling beneath her skin.

How in God’s name could this have happened? How could she not know that he was the potential investor? How could Brian not realize that Marcus was her ex-husband?

She wanted to kick herself for not asking more questions or insisting on being given more details about today’s meeting. But then, she hadn’t really cared who Brian’s mystery investor was, had she? She’d cared only that he was rich and seemed willing to partner up with small business owners in the hopes of a big payoff down the road.

She’d convinced herself she was desperate and needed a quick influx of cash to keep The Sugar Shack’s doors open. But she would never be desperate enough to take charity from the man who had broken her heart and turned his back on her when she’d needed him the most.

Not bothering to address Marcus, she turned her gaze to Brian. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to work out,” she told him, then promptly turned on her heel and marched back out of the office building.

She was down the front steps and halfway up the block before she heard the first call.

“Vanessa! Vanessa, wait!”

The three-inch pumps she’d worn because they went so well with her outfit—and because she’d wanted to make a good impression—pinched her toes as she nearly ran the length of the uneven sidewalk in the direction of The Sugar Shack. All she wanted was to get away from Marcus, away from those glittering eyes and the arrogant tilt of his chin. She didn’t care that he was yelling for her, or that she could hear his footsteps keeping pace several yards behind her. “Vanessa!”

Turning the corner only a short distance from The Sugar Shack, her steps faltered. Her heart lurched and her blood chilled.

Oh, no. She’d been so angry, so eager to get away from her ex-husband and escape back to the safety of the bakery that she’d forgotten that’s where Danny was. And if there was anything she needed to protect more than her own sanity, it was her son.

Suddenly, she couldn’t take another step, coming to a jerky stop only feet from the bakery door. Marcus rounded the corner a moment later, coming to an equally abrupt halt when he spotted her simply standing there like a panicked and disheveled department store mannequin.

He was slightly out of breath, and she found that more than a little satisfying. It was a nice change from his normal state of being calm, cool and always in control. And nothing less than he deserved, given what he was putting her through now.

“Finally,” he muttered, sounding completely put out. “Why did you run?” He wanted to know. “We may be divorced, but that doesn’t mean we can’t sit and have a civil conversation.”

“I have nothing to say to you,” she bit out. And there was nothing she had to say that he wanted to hear. The cruel declaration replayed through her mind, bringing with it a fresh stab of pain and reminding her of just how important it was to keep him away from her child.

“What about this business of yours?” he asked, running a hand through his thick, dark hair before smoothing his tie and buttoning his suit jacket, once again the epitome of entrepreneurial precision. “It sounds like you could use the capital and I’m always on the lookout for a good investment.”

“I don’t want your money,” she told him.

He inclined his head, acknowledging the sincerity of her words. “But do you need it?”

He asked the question in a low tone, with no hint of condescension and not as though he meant to dangle his wealth over her head like a plump, juicy carrot. Instead, he sounded willing to help her if she needed it.

Oh, she needed help, but not of the strings-attached variety. And not from her cold, unfeeling ex-husband.

Fighting the urge to grab whatever money he was willing to toss her way and run, she straightened her spine, squared her shoulders and reminded herself that she was doing just fine on her own. She didn’t need a man—any man—to ride in and rescue her.

“The bakery is doing quite well, thank you,” she replied, her voice clipped. “And even if it weren’t, I wouldn’t need anything from you.”

Marc opened his mouth, about to reply and possibly try to change her mind, when Brian Blake rushed around the corner. He skidded to a jerky halt when he saw them, looking frazzled and alarmed. For a second, he stood there, breathing heavily, his gaze darting back and forth between the two of them. Then he shook his head and his puzzlement seemed to clear.

“Mr. Keller…Vanessa…” He took another moment to suck in much-needed oxygen, his Adam’s apple riding up and down above the tight collar of his pale blue dress shirt. “This isn’t at all how I’d planned for this meeting to go,” he told them apologetically. “If you’ll just come back to the office…. Let’s sit down and see if we can’t work something out.”

A touch of guilt tugged at Vanessa’s chest. Brian was a good guy. He didn’t deserve to suffer or be put in the middle of an acrimonious situation just because she despised Marc and refused to have anything more to do with him—let alone go into business with him.

“I’m sorry, Brian,” she apologized. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, but this particular partnership just isn’t going to work.”

For a minute, Brian looked as though he meant to argue. Noting the firm expression on her face, however, he released a sigh of resignation and nodded. “I understand.”

“Actually,” Marc said, “I’m still very much interested in hearing about the bakery.”

Brian’s eyes widened with a spark of relief, but Vanessa immediately tensed.

“No, Marcus,” she told him, her firm tone brooking no arguments. Not that that had ever stopped him before.

“It sounds like it might be a sound investment, Nessa,” he retorted, arching a single dark brow and using his old pet name for her. No doubt to put her off balance. “I drove three hours to get here and I’d prefer not to turn right around and go back empty-handed.” He paused for a beat, letting that sink in. Then he added, “At least give me a tour.”

No. Oh, no. She definitely couldn’t let him into the bakery. That would be even more dangerous than simply having him in town, aware that she lived here now, as well.

She opened her mouth to say so, linking her arms across her chest to let him know she had no intention of changing her mind, when Brian stopped her. Touching her shoulder, he tipped his head, signaling her to follow him a few steps away, out of earshot of Marcus.

“Miss Mason. Vanessa,” he said, dropping formalities. “Think about this. Please. I know Mr. Keller is your ex-husband—although I had no idea when I set up today’s meeting. I never would have asked him to come here if I had—but if he’s willing to invest in The Sugar Shack, as your financial advisor, I have to recommend that you seriously consider his offer. You’re doing all right at the moment. The bakery is holding its own. But you’ll never be able to move forward with your plans to expand without added capital from an outside source, and if worst comes to worst, one bad season could cause you to lose the business entirely.”

Even though Vanessa didn’t want to listen, didn’t want to believe Brian was right, she knew deep down that he was. The Sugar Shack might be her livelihood, but smart financial planning was his. She wouldn’t have begun working with him in the first place if she didn’t think he knew what he was doing.

Casting a glance over her shoulder to be sure Marc couldn’t overhear their conversation, she turned back and whispered, “There’s more at stake here than just the bakery, Brian.” So much more. “I’ll let him look around. Let the two of you talk. But no matter what kind of plan you two come up with, no matter what offer he might make, I can’t promise I’ll be willing to accept. I’m sorry.”

He looked none too pleased with her assertion, but he nodded, accepting that she would only be pushed so far where Marcus Keller was concerned.

Returning to Marc, Brian informed him of her decision and they started forward again, toward the main entrance of the bakery. The heavenly scents of freshly baked bread, pies and other pastries filled the air the closer they got. As always, those smells caused Vanessa’s stomach to rumble and her mouth to water, making her hungry for a piping-hot cinnamon roll or a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Which probably explained why she hadn’t quite managed to shed all of her baby weight yet.

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