Her Little Secret, His Hidden HeirBy: Heidi Betts
Vanessa Keller—soon to be simply Vanessa Mason again—sat at the foot of her hotel-room bed, staring at the small plastic wand in her hand. She blinked, feeling her heart pound, her stomach roll and her vision go fuzzy around the edges.
As bad luck went, this ranked right up there with having your plane go down on the way to your honeymoon destination or getting hit by a bus right after you’d won the million-dollar lotto.
And the irony of the situation…
A harsh laugh escaped her lungs, taking with it a puff of the stale air she’d been holding onto for the past several minutes.
She was newly divorced from a husband she’d thought was the man of her dreams, staying in a downtown Pittsburgh hotel because she didn’t know quite what to do with her life now that the rug had been yanked out from under her. And if that wasn’t enough to make her wonder where things had gone so wrong, now she was pregnant.
Pregnant. With her ex-husband’s child, when she hadn’t managed to conceive in the three years they’d been married, even though they’d tried…or at least hadn’t worked to prevent it.
What in heaven’s name was she going to do?
Pushing to her feet on less-than-steady legs, she crossed to the wide desk against the far wall and dropped into its cushioned chair. Her hands shook as she laid the small plastic stick on the flat surface and dragged the phone closer.
Taking deep, shuddering breaths, she told herself she could do this. Told herself it was the right thing to do, and however he reacted, she would handle it.
This was not a bid to get back together. Vanessa wasn’t sure she would want to, even with a baby now in the picture. But he deserved to know he was going to be a father, regardless of the current state of their relationship.
With cold fingers, she dialed the familiar number, knowing his assistant would answer. She’d never cared for Trevor Storch; he was a weaselly little brownnoser, treating her more as an annoyance than as the wife of the CEO of a multimillion-dollar company and his boss.
After only one ring, Trevor’s squeaky, singsong voice came on the line. “Keller Corporation, Marcus Keller’s office. How may I help you?”
“It’s Vanessa,” she said without preamble—he knew full well who she was. He was probably privy to more of the details about her marriage and subsequent divorce than he deserved to be, too. “I need to talk to Marc.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Mason, Mr. Keller isn’t available.”
His use of her maiden name—not to mention calling her Miss—struck Vanessa’s heart like the tip of a knife. No doubt he’d done it deliberately.
“It’s important,” she said, not bothering to correct or argue with him. She’d done enough of that in the past, as well as overlooking his snide attitude just to keep the peace; she didn’t have to do it anymore, either.
“I’m sorry,” he told her again, “but Mr. Keller has instructed me to tell you that there’s nothing you could possibly have to say to him that he wants to hear. Good day.”
And with that, the line went dead, leaving Vanessa openmouthed with shock. If hearing herself called “Miss Mason” rather than “Mrs. Keller” felt like a knife tip being inserted into her heart, then being told her ex-husband wouldn’t even deign to speak with her any longer thrust the blade the rest of the way in to the hilt and twisted it sharply.
She’d known Marc was angry with her, knew they’d parted on less than friendly terms. But never in a million years would she have expected him to cut her off so callously.
He’d loved her once, hadn’t he? She’d certainly loved him. And yet they’d come to this—virtual strangers who couldn’t even speak a civil word to one another.
But that answered the question of what she was going to do. She was going to be a single mother, and without Marcus’s money and support—which she wouldn’t have taken, with or without the prenup—she’d better find a way to take care of herself and the baby—and she’d better do it fast.
One year later…
Marcus Keller flexed his fingers on the warm leather of the steering wheel, his sleek black Mercedes hugging the road as he took the narrow curves leading into Summerville faster than was probably wise.
The small Pennsylvania town was only three hours from his own home in Pittsburgh, but it might as well have been a world away. Where Pittsburgh was ninety percent concrete and city lights, Summerville was thick forests, green grass, quaint houses and a small downtown area that reminded Marcus of a modern version of Mayberry.
He slowed his speed, taking the time to examine the storefronts as he passed. A drug store, a post office, a bar and grill, a gift shop…and a bakery.
Lifting his foot from the gas, he slowed even more, studying the bright yellow awning and fancy black lettering declaring it to be The Sugar Shack…the red neon sign in the window letting customers know they were open…and the handful of people inside, enjoying freshly made baked goods.
It looked inviting, which was important in the food service industry. He was tempted to lower his window and see if he could actually smell the delicious scents of breads and cookies and pies in the air.
But there was more to running a successful business than a cute name and an attractive front window, and if he was going to put money into The Sugar Shack, he wanted to know it was a sound investment.
At the corner, he took a left and continued down a side street, following the directions he’d been given to reach the offices of Blake and Fetzer, Financial Advisors. He’d worked with Brian Blake before, though never on an investment this far from home or this close to Blake’s own offices. Still, the man had never steered him wrong, which made Marcus more willing to take time off work and make the long drive.
A few blocks down the street, he noticed a lone woman walking quickly on three-inch heels. Given the uneven pavement and pebbles littering the sidewalk, she wasn’t having an easy time of it. She also seemed distracted, rooting around inside an oversize handbag rather than keeping her attention on where she was going.
A niggle of something uncomfortable skated through his belly. She reminded him somehow of his ex-wife. A bit heavier and curvier, her coppery hair cut short instead of left to flow halfway down her back, but still very similar. Especially the way she walked and dressed. This woman was wearing a white blouse and a black skirt with a short slit at the back, framing a pair of long, lovely legs. No jacket and no clunky accessories, which followed Vanessa’s personal style to a T.
Shifting his gaze back to the road, he tamped down on whatever emotion had his chest going tight. Guilt? Regret? Simple sentimentality? He wasn’t sure and didn’t care to examine the unexpected feelings too closely.
They’d been divorced for over a year. Better to put it all behind him and move on, as he was sure Vanessa had done.
Spotting the offices of Blake and Fetzer, he pulled into the diminutive three-car lot at the back of the building, cut the engine and stepped out into the warm spring day. With any luck, this meeting and the subsequent tour of The Sugar Shack would only take a couple of hours, then he could be back on the road and headed home. Small town life might be fine for some people, but Marcus would be only too happy to get back to the hustle and bustle of the city and the life he’d made for himself there.
Vanessa stopped outside Brian Blake’s office, taking a moment to straighten her blouse and skirt, run a hand through her short-cropped hair and touch up her lipstick. It had been a long time since she’d gotten this dressed up and she was sorely out of practice.
It didn’t help, either, that all of the nicer clothes she’d acquired while being married to Marcus were now at least one size too small. That meant her top was a bit too snug across the chest, her skirt was a good inch shorter than she would have liked and darned if the waistband wasn’t cutting off her circulation.
Thankfully, the town of Summerville didn’t require her to dress up this much, even for Sunday services. Otherwise, she may have had to invest in a new wardrobe, and given what a hard time she was having just keeping her head above water and her business afloat, that was an added expense she definitely could not afford.
Deciding that her appearance was about as good as it was going to get at this late date, she took a deep breath and pushed through the door. Blake and Fetzer’s lone receptionist greeted her with a wide smile, informed her that Brian and the potential investor were waiting in his office, and told her to go right in.
She took another steadying breath and before stepping inside sent a quick prayer heavenward that the wealthy entrepreneur Brian had found to hopefully invest in her fledging enterprise would find The Sugar Shack worthy of his financial backing.
The first thing she saw was Brian sitting behind his desk, smiling as he chatted with the visitor facing away from her in one of the guest chairs. The man had dark hair that barely dusted the collar of his charcoal-gray jacket and was tapping a tan, long-fingered hand on the arm of his chair, as though he was impatient to get down to business.
As soon as Brian spotted her, his smile widened and he rose to his feet. “Vanessa,” he greeted her, “you’re right on time. Allow me to introduce you to the man I hope will become an investor in your wonderful bakery. Marcus Keller, this is Vanessa Mason. Vanessa this is—”