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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"
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 outfitand because she'd wanted to make a good impressionpinched 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 manany manto 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 himlet 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-husbandalthough I had no idea when I set up today's meeting. I never would have asked him to come here if I hadbut 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."