Her Little Secret, His Hidden Heir(4)

By: Heidi Betts

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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