Her Little Secret, His Hidden Heir

By: Heidi Betts

For Vanessa, having Marc “move” to Summerville felt very much like when she’d first met him.

She’d been putting herself through school by waiting tables at an all-night diner near the college campus. He’d been attending school on his father’s dime, breezing through classes and spending his free time playing football or attending frat parties.

He’d walked into the diner late one night with a pack of his friends, all of whom could have been male models for some brand of expensive cologne or another. She’d served them pancakes and eggs, and enough soda to float the Titanic. And even though she’d noticed him—she’d noticed all of them; how could she not?—she hadn’t thought much of it. Why should she, when he was just one of a thousand different customers she served day in and day out? Not to mention one of the many young, carefree men who breezed through school—and life, it seemed—while she worked her fingers to the bone and burned the candle at both ends just trying to stay in school?

But then he’d shown up again. Sat in her section again. Sometimes with friends, other times by himself.

He’d smiled at her. Left huge tips, sometimes a hundred percent in addition to his check total. And made small talk with her. It wasn’t until much later that she realized she’d told him nearly her entire life story in bits and pieces over a matter of weeks.

Finally, he’d asked her out and she’d been too enamored to say no. Half in love with him already and well on her way to head over heels.

Those same sensations were swamping her now. Shock, confusion, trepidation… He was a force to be reckoned with, much like a natural disaster. He was a tornado, an earthquake, a tsunami swooping in and turning her entire life upside down.

Within the hour, he’d been in touch with everyone he’d needed to contact back in Pittsburgh. Put out the word that he would be staying in Summerville indefinitely, and that his right-hand men—and women—were in charge of Keller Corp until further notice.

As far as Vanessa knew, though, he hadn’t told them why he would be away for a while. She’d overheard him on the phone with his brother, but all Marc had said was that the business he was thinking of investing in looked promising and he needed to stick around to take a closer look at the premises and financials.

Keeping the true reason to himself was probably a smart move, she admitted reluctantly. No doubt if Eleanor Keller learned that her cherished son had a child with his evil ex-wife, she would go into a tizzy of epic proportions. Her already just-sucked-on-a-lemon expression would turn even more pinched and she would immediately begin plotting ways to get both Marc and Danny back into her circle of influence.

But not Vanessa. Eleanor would be plotting ways to keep Vanessa from reentering her or her son’s lives.

Vanessa imagined that where Marc took it as a given that he was Danny’s father, Marc’s mother would insist on having a paternity test conducted as soon as possible. She would pray for a result that proved Danny was another man’s child, of course, leaving Marc free and clear.

Free and clear of Vanessa, and free and clear to marry someone else. A woman Eleanor would not only approve of, but would probably handpick herself.

She didn’t verbalize her inhospitable thoughts to Marc, however. He didn’t know how truly horrid his mother had been to her while they’d been married and she saw no reason to enlighten him now.

“There,” he said, pushing through the swinging door into the kitchen where she and Aunt Helen were keeping themselves busy. He slipped his cell phone into his pocket, then shrugged out of his suit jacket altogether.

“That should buy me a few weeks of freedom before the place starts to fall apart and they send out a search party.”

Aunt Helen was up to her elbows in bread flour, but her feelings on the subject of Marc staying in town were clear in the narrow slits of her eyes and the force she was using to knead the ball of dough in front of her.

She didn’t like it one little bit, but as Vanessa had told her while Marc was making phone calls, they didn’t have a choice. Either Marc stuck around until he got whatever it was that he was after, or he would drag Vanessa and Danny back to Pittsburgh.

She’d considered a third option—sending Marc back to Pittsburgh on his own—but knew that if she pushed him on the issue, it would only cause trouble and hostility. If she refused to allow Marc time with his son, in one town or another, Vanessa had no doubt it would only spur her ex-husband to throw his weight and his family’s millions around.

And what did that mean? A big, ugly custody battle.

She was a good mother, so she knew Marc could never take Danny away from her on that basis alone. But she didn’t fool herself, either, that the system wouldn’t be swayed by the amount of money and power the Kellers could bring to bear. Eleanor alone wasn’t above bribery, blackmail or making up a series of stories to paint Vanessa in the most negative light possible.

No, if there was any way to avoid a custody fight or any amount of animosity with Marc whatsoever, then she had to try. It might even mean making arrangements for shared custody and traveling back and forth to Pittsburgh or having Marc travel back and forth to Summerville. But whatever it took to keep Marc happy and Danny with her, she would do.

Even if it meant letting her ex move into her life—and her business and possibly her house—for God knew how long.

Finished filling a tray with fresh squares of turtle brownies, Vanessa wiped her hands on a nearby dish towel. “What about your things?” she asked. “Don’t you need to go home and collect your personal items?”

Marc shrugged, and she couldn’t help but notice the shift of firm muscle beneath his white button-down shirt. She remembered only too well what lay beneath that shirt, and how much she’d once enjoyed knowing it belonged to her and her alone.

“I’m having some clothes and such shipped. Anything else I need, I’m sure I can purchase here.”

He hung his jacket on a hook near the door, where she and Helen kept their aprons when not in use, then crossed to the bassinet she’d dragged back out of the storeroom once Marc had figured out what was going on. Danny was sleeping inside, stretched out on his little belly, arms and legs all akimbo.

“The only question now,” Marc said, gazing down at his son, then reaching out to stroke a single finger over Danny’s soft cheek, “is where I’ll be staying while I’m in town.”

Vanessa opened her mouth, not even sure what she was about to say, only to be interrupted by Helen.

“Well, you’re not staying in my house,” her aunt announced in no uncertain terms. Her tight, blue-washed curls bobbed as she used the heels of her hands to beat the ball of bread dough into submission.

Though her aunt’s clear dislike of Marc brought an immediate stab of guilt and the sudden urge to apologize, Vanessa was unaccountably grateful that Helen had the nerve to blurt out what she’d been unable to find the courage to tell him herself.

“Thank you so much for the kind invitation,” Marc said, lips twisted with amusement, “but I really couldn’t impose.”

How typical of him to take Helen’s rudeness in stride. That sort of thing never had fazed him, mainly because Marc knew who he was, where he came from and what he could do.

Plus, Aunt Helen hadn’t always hated him. She didn’t hate him now, actually, she was just annoyed with him and took his treatment of Vanessa personally.

Which was at least partly Vanessa’s fault. She’d shown up on her aunt’s doorstep hurt, angry, broken and carrying her ex-husband’s child.

After spilling out the story of her rocky marriage, subsequent divorce, unexpected pregnancy and desperate need for a place to stay—with Marc filling the role of bad guy-slash-mean old ogre under the bridge at every turn—her aunt’s opinion of him had dropped like a stone. Ever since then, Aunt Helen’s only objective was to not see her niece hurt again.

Vanessa was still fighting the urge to make excuses for Helen when Marc said, “I thought maybe you could recommend a nice local hotel.”

Vanessa and Helen exchanged a look.

“Guess that would be the Harbor Inn just a couple streets over,” Helen told him. “It’s not much, but your only other option is Daisy’s Motel out on Route 12.”

“Harbor Inn,” Marc murmured, brows drawing together. “I didn’t realize there was a waterway around here large enough to necessitate a harbor.”

Vanessa and Helen exchanged another look, along with mutual ironic smiles.

“There isn’t,” Vanessa told him. “It’s one of those small town oddities that no one can really explain. There’s no harbor nearby. Not even a creek or stream worth mentioning. But the Harbor Inn is one of Summerville’s oldest hotels, and it’s decorated top to bottom with lighthouses, seagulls, fishing nets, starfish…”

She shook her head, hoping Marc wouldn’t think too badly of the town or its residents. Even though some parts were a little backward at times, this was her home now and she found herself feeling quite protective toward it.

“If nothing else, it’s an amusing place to stay,” she added by way of explanation.

He looked less than convinced, but didn’t say anything. Instead, he moved away from the bassinet and started to unbutton his cuffs, rolling the sleeves of his shirt up to his elbows.

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