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Sugar Sweet by Christine d'Abo (1)

Chapter 1

Marissa sat on the edge of her bed in her underwear, pants down around her ankles and her apron still tied around her waist. Her phone was warm in her hands, the screen too bright in her dim basement apartment as another call came in.

This was number four—no five. Yeah, the fifth call in an hour. That had to be a new record. Yesterday she’d only had five calls all day, which meant another collection agency must have uncovered her new number today. There was a small part of her that wondered if Andrew himself was passing her information along to them. Not that she’d given her ex her new cell number, but he’d proven to be super resourceful in his bitterness, and Marissa wouldn’t put it past him.

This was her continued punishment for breaking up with him.

Though technically, he’d broken up with her first.

The screen on her phone went black, and the indicator flashed red letting her know that there was another message waiting. She set her phone into her lap, kicked off her work pants, taking a moment to rub her sore calves. She’d been working double shifts whenever she could, in a vain attempt to keep on top of these debts. Even if she’d known they were coming, the chances of her being able to financially handle them all were small at best. She’d maxed out on student loans, and because she’d co-signed for Andrew’s startup business two years ago, the bank wasn’t keen on giving her another one, even if it would help her consolidate debts.

So double shifts between trips to the library to do research papers would be her life for the foreseeable future. She looked down at the blinking light. Morbid curiosity would get the better of her soon and she’d listen to whatever the demands were. She’d have to find a way to pay everything. If she didn’t, her dreams of starting her own business would never come to pass.

Andrew might have screwed up her past and present, but she’d be dammed if she’d cede him her future as well.

Setting her phone on the bed, Marissa found the energy to get changed. She needed to head into the library to meet up with Naomi. They had a group assignment due in three days and Marissa hadn’t even started on her part of the project. The musty smell clung to her T-shirt as she slipped it on. Shit, she’d just washed these and had used those stupid scent booster beads. Nothing seemed to work. The air in her apartment was dank and left a residue over everything. She’d mentioned it to Shelia shortly after moving in, and a dehumidifier had appeared the next day. Maybe the damn thing was broken.

She turned to go check it, when the message light caught her eye again, taunting her. There was no reason to check, because she knew what was there waiting for her, even if she didn’t know the exact words. It was simply another company that needed to be added to the list. She started out of the room, made it three steps before spinning around and snatching her phone. With a roll of her eyes, she pressed the button for her voice mail.

Beep. “This is not a sales call. This is a message for Marissa Roy. Please contact Raylon Group at 647-555-7354 to receive important information on how to repay your debt. It’s imperative for you to get in touch with us or else your credit rating will be impacted. Again, the number is 647-555-7354.”

She ended the call, and set her phone down on top of the dehumidifier. The motor wasn’t running, nor was the bucket in the back full. She gave it a little bang on the top, before hitting it a second time, harder. The motor kicked in, snapping and chugging away as it pulled the moisture from the air.

Well, that was at least one thing she could fix.

She picked up the phone and slid it into her pocket when it rang again. Instead of her generic ringtone, this time it was the one she’d assigned to her mom. Shit. Marissa had been purposely forgetting to call her for weeks now, knowing her mom would do whatever she could to try and help her out of this. And while she loved her mom more than anything, she wasn’t going to drag her into this mess.

Taking a breath, Marissa smiled and hoped it would come through in her voice. “Hey there. I haven’t talked to you in ages.”

“Hey baby.” Her mom’s voice came through crisp and clear, but for a moment was nearly drowned out by something loud in the background. “I missed you.”

“What are you doing?”

“The church has a bake sale on the weekend and I said I’d make my cupcakes again.”

Marissa’s stomach growled at the thought of the buttercream frosting she knew would be paired with it. “Please save me some.”

“That would mean you’d have to come visit me.” She chuckled and what Marissa now recognized as the sound of beaters going, turned off. “How are your classes going?” There was no mistaking the pride in her voice. She’d never gone to college herself, and had been super excited when Marissa got into her business program.

“Good. I mean, I’ve only been at it a few weeks, but so far I’m enjoying them.”

“I’m so happy to hear that. I don’t know where you got your brains, because it certainly wasn’t from me.”

Marissa knew better than to say anything about her father. “Well, let’s hope it stays like this until midterms. Naomi told me about a scholarship that’s specifically for women in the business program. If I keep my marks up, there’s a chance I’ll qualify.”

“That’s amazing.” Her mother’s voice cracked, before she cleared it. “I’m so proud of you, baby.”

“Thanks.” Marissa sat down on her one and only chair.

“So, are you going to tell me what’s wrong, or am I going to have to pry it out of you?”

Marissa’s stomach soured. “Why would you think there’s anything wrong?

“You think I can’t tell when there’s something going on with you? You’re not sparkling and you always sparkle.” Her mom laughed again. “Plus, you haven’t talked to me in three weeks, which means you’re avoiding telling me something. So, spill it.”

No. She loved her mom, but there was no way she’d pull her into this. But Marissa also lacked the ability to lie to her, which meant she was going to have to get creative. “I’ve been good. Just…a lot of things have been coming at me. School and work. And…a lot of outside pressures. It’s just been hard…financially. And I’ve picked up a bunch of extra shifts at the restaurant, but there’ve been some…unexpected bills.”

“Sweetie, why didn’t you tell me you needed some money.” Her mom sighed. “God, I thought you’d gotten yourself into trouble with a boy or something. How much do you need? Did you want me to top up your meal plan? I just got paid myself, so you hit me at the right time.”

Guilt was a horrible palate cleanser for telling lies. “Ah, yeah, that would be amazing.” It wouldn’t be enough to even remotely put a dent in what she owed, but at least she wouldn’t have to worry about getting groceries for a while.

“I can log into the site and do that today. Though it sounds like there’s something else you need.”

Oh, you know, a couple hundred thousand or so. “No, that will be good.”

“I can put a bit extra on the card. Give you some beer money. I know you’re working hard, baby. Things will get easier for you soon. I promise.”

“Thanks Mom.”

Hanging up the phone, Marissa fought back a wave of tears. What a frigging coward she was, not even able to tell her mom what the hell was going on. But she knew, her mom would try and take over, she’d take on Marissa’s bills until her own finances were depleted. Then, they’d both be screwed and Marissa would be even worse off for having dragged her into this. She had to find a way out that didn’t involve family.

A knock on her door had her lifting her head. It was probably her landlady Shelia looking for the rent. Marissa would mention the dehumidifier was on the blink; maybe she had another one upstairs in the piles of things everywhere. Marissa was about three steps from the door, when whoever it was knocked on her door again, far harder than before.

“I know you’re in there!” The very male voice sounded more than a little angry.

Marissa took a step back, looking to make sure she’d secured her deadbolt when she’d come in earlier. “Who’s there?”

“You owe us money. Open up so we can talk.”

Shit, could they do this? Weren’t there laws or something preventing this sort of harassment? Maybe? Probably not. “I don’t think so.”

“I’m here for our money. Write me a cheque and I’ll leave.”

Marissa’s mind raced and her body shook. “Your company has my phone number, I’m sure. Have them call me with the details and I’ll follow up.”

“Open the door!”

“Nope. Call me. Or send me an email if you want.” A hard thud shook the door. “Did you just kick my door?”

“Over fifty grand. I want the money now.”

Marissa’s hands shook as she pulled out her cell. “I’m calling the police.”

“You’re a fucking lowlife, ripping off legitimate businesses. Pay what you owe, bitch.” There was another loud bang, followed by heavy footsteps as whoever it was marched back upstairs and outside.

She couldn’t move for a solid five minutes, her gaze locked on the old door as she strained to hear if the man was still hiding outside. There was no way she was going to leave now, especially if the man could potentially be waiting for her on the street. Shit, she was going to have to cancel on Naomi.

Fifty thousand dollars? No freaking way. If he was telling the truth, then that was in addition to the other loans that creditors were now chasing her for. She didn’t remember signing her name on a loan that large. The most she’d done was five thousand dollars for Andrew to buy the stock he’d needed for his café. None of this made any sense.

And yet, she’d come to learn that Andrew wasn’t the man she’d assumed he was. He had this manipulative side of him that she’d never seen—or had ignored the warning signs—and now she had to assume he’d been capable of anything. Including somehow getting her name added to a loan she’d never seen.

Tears spilled down her cheeks as the gravity of the situation pressed down on her. Even if she quit school, she wouldn’t have the money to pay off what she now owed. And without the education she’d worked so hard for over the past few years, she wasn’t going to accomplish her goal of opening her own business.

Her mind raced through the options, and while there were a few, it was one that her friend Naomi had presented her with that kept coming back to the top of the list.

But there was no way she could do that. Putting her trust in another man—a stranger at that—wasn’t how she could get out of this situation. If anything, it might make things far more complicated.

And yet…

Wiping her tears, she went to her small kitchen table and opened her laptop. It took a while for her ancient computer to come alive from power saving mode, but when it did, the email from Naomi was still open from when she’d left it yesterday.

I know things have gotten hard for you. I was at this boot camp thing back in the spring talking about sugar daddy sites. Dude, it’s legit and some of the girls at the thing said it was a Godsend. I’ve had good luck myself. You’re hot and I’m sure you wouldn’t have any problems finding someone. Here’s the link. www.millionairesugardaddy.com. Aim high, right LOL! We can chat at school about it.

Love Naomi.

Marissa’s finger hovered over the mouse button. The mere thought of looking for a sugar daddy should be repulsive, demeaning. Her mother would be furious if she knew Marissa was even considering the option. But if what Naomi had said was true, most of the time these guys weren’t even interested in sex. It was more about companionship than anything else. Given how hard she’d been working and how little time she’d had for anything social, it wasn’t a horrible idea to spend time with someone. And if she got some financial help out of the deal, then how bad could it be.

She moved the mouse over the link.

God, this was probably a terrible mistake. Maybe if she went back to the bank and talked to them again, they might be willing to consolidate the loans. Or she could declare bankruptcy and totally ruin her own chances of opening up her own business once she got out of school. They were only dreams, right?

What harm could there be in looking?

She clicked the link.

* * * *

Vince wanted to punch something, anything that wasn’t his father. The older Mr. Taylor was currently talking to a woman who was easily younger than Vince by several years, and finishing off his third scotch this hour. The girl so far seemed to be holding her own, but Vince was ready to swoop in and extract her if she gave any indication that Geoff had crossed a line.

“The old man at it again?” Nate handed Vince a drink of his own, as he stepped beside him.

Vince nodded his acknowledgement as he took a drink. Several women stared briefly as they walked past, only to bend their heads giggling once they were by. He knew he and his best friend-cum-PR rep, made quite the striking pair standing there in their tuxes. Nate’s dark skin was in stark contrast to his own pale tone, making them look as opposite as could be. But they were of equal height which drew more than a little attention whenever they entered a room. If the gossip sites were to be believed, two of the best bachelor catches in Toronto.

Nate shook his head as Geoff reached over and curled a piece of the woman’s hair around his finger. “I don’t know how he does it?”

“Don’t admire him. He’s slime.” Once upon a time, Vince had admired his father and his ability to get the girl while closing a killer business deal. He’d done his best to emulate Geoff’s freewheeling ways, until that had landed him into a pile of trouble. “He’s trying to sleep with someone young enough to be his daughter.”

“Yeah, I see that.” Nate swallowed his drink and handed it to a passing waiter. “What do you want to do?”

Vince hated having to play protector, hated needing to intervene for a man who should fucking know better. But ever since his mom had left them, Vince had no choice but to do everything he could to keep his father from self destructing. “He’s had too much to drink and needs to go home.”

“Do you want to divide and conquer then?”

They’d come tonight at Geoff’s insistence. The after party for the film launch opened them up to schmoozing with financial backers, actors, and the sort of crowd Geoff gravitated toward. Vince had intended to stay for a round or two, then bow out and head home for a run. But once his dad got drinking, Vince couldn’t trust him not to make a mess of things.

When Geoff reached over and put his hand on the girl’s ass, Vince stiffened. “Yup.”

“I’ll get the girl out of there and you deal with your dad.” Nate nodded and was already moving before Vince could find a place for his drink.

“Nate! Wait.” Vince carefully sidestepped a couple before striding quickly across the bar to his father.

“Mr. Taylor, Vince needed to speak with you.” Nate winked at the young woman. “Hello, beautiful. I’ve been dying to dance all night. Interested? Or maybe we can have a drink?”

The look of relief on her face was so obvious it was painful. “Yeah, that sounds good.”

Before his father could protest, Vince put a hand on his shoulder and led him in the opposite direction, toward the bar. “I think it’s time to get you home.”

“Little bastard. I was about to make my move.” But Geoff didn’t fight it when Vince started to move him toward the back of the bar.

With his arm around his dad, Vince waited until a group passed them before leaning close to his ear. “You know better than to corner a woman like that. Your therapist—”

“Is a fucking asshole. He doesn’t know anything. I wasn’t pressuring her to do something.”

“It didn’t look like that from where I was standing.” Vince released his dad and took a step away. He was going to punch him if he didn’t get him home soon. “I’m going to call the car.”

Geoff waved him away. “Not yet. I haven’t seen Simon. He was supposed to be up for the film festival. I need to see him.”

Vince’s chest tightened. His father and Simon Berry had been at odds for over a decade now. Their strange back and forth had caused Vince more grief both personally and professionally than anything else in his life. “I’m sure he’s around somewhere. You can always email him later.”

“I don’t think you understand.” Geoff leaned in, the strong scent of alcohol washing over Vince. “He’s going to buy GreenPro.”

Motherfucker. “We’ve talked about this. I don’t want to sell the company. At the very least, we need to hold on to it for another year. The market might be ready by then.”

It was an excuse, and a flimsy one at that. GreenPro was the last company that he co-owned with his father. For years, Vince had wanted to take charge and develop the green energy organization into something big. Its model made it such that every city in North America could be a potential market, which was far bigger than anything they’d ever worked on before. But his father…there was no way he’d let Vince take the reins and run with this. No, he wanted to sell, to get every penny he could from GreenPro, and take away the dream that Vince had of leaving his mark on the green sector. Or doing something professionally that would leave an actual mark on society.

Back and forth they’d gone, cock-blocking one another, trapped in an eternal stalemate. Both of them needed to approve the sale, or any changes with the company, and neither was willing to give an inch.

His father’s narrowed gaze was a dagger pointed directly at Vince’s head. “Simon knows what he wants to do with it. Better than you.”

“I doubt that.” Not that any of that mattered, because the last he’d heard, Simon wanted nothing to do with Geoff. “I’m surprised he’s even talking to you.”

Their quarrel had been precipitated by his father sleeping with Simon’s now ex-wife. The fallout had Vince painted with the same carousing brush as his dad, which had helped with his television appearances, but harmed his business dealings. Simon’s wrath had been more directed at his ex-wife than Geoff, which had never sat right with Vince. She wasn’t the only one who’d been in that bed.

“I’m a changed man.” His smug smile sent alarm bells off in Vince.

“I’m scared to ask. How?”

“I have a new woman in my life. She’s young, smart and will lull Simon into a false sense of security. And if I pay her enough, she might even get him into a compromising situation that I can use to my advantage.”

Vince grabbed his father by the arm and dragged him to the hallway that led to the coat check. Only once he knew they were alone did he let him go, turn around and get in his face. “What the hell did you do?”

“Nothing.” He grinned. “Yet.”

Five. Four. Three… “Elaborate, before I punch you and it ends up in the news.”

“I’ve signed up for a site. To get girls.”

“An escort site?” Vince took a breath. This was far worse than he’d anticipated.

“Sugar daddy.” Geoff took out his phone and flicked open an email. “See, she’s sweet and innocent. Simon would know an escort a mile away. But this? She needs money and I need some arm candy. She’ll do whatever I ask, and she gets paid in return. Best business deal I ever made.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Vince took the phone from him and stared down at the profile. Marissa Roy, age twenty-four. “She’s a college student.”

“Most of them are. They need help paying for school. I have a friend who put me onto this.”

“I’m not letting you do this.” There was no way in hell he would let his father anywhere near this girl. His father was a shark and would have no problem taking advantage of her.

“Too late. She’s agreed to meet me on the yacht Friday night.”

“Cancel.”

“No. I’ve already agreed to the date. She’s agreed to come and I’m expected to pay her for her time.” Geoff leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. “Scared I’m going to hurt her?”

“More like traumatize.” He knew nothing about Marissa Roy, but even if she were the most capable woman in the world, he doubted she’d be prepared for his father. “Cancel.”

“No.” Geoff’s grin was toothy as he cocked his head. “Unless you agree to deal with Simon. To let me work my deal to sell that fucking albatross of a company.”

Why did it always come down to this between them? “I’m not letting you run the deal. And I won’t let you see the girl.”

“You run the deal then. But you’ll need the girl.”

“Why?”

“Simon thinks we’re neutered if we’re in a relationship. He’ll think we’ll be soft and then we can go in for the kill.” The look on his father’s face was pure malice. “I’ll enjoy proving him wrong.”

Vince knew he had no choice but to run with this. If his father was determined to try to sell GreenPro to Simon, Vince didn’t have enough ownership in the company to override him. If one of them didn’t give in, they’d continued to be caught in a perpetual circle of bitterness. That wasn’t the type of relationship he’d wanted with his father. He’d tried to help support him after his mom had left them and done everything he could to pull his dad out of the depths of his despair. Even asking him to go in on the initial GreenPro deal had been his way to bridge their widening gap. It had instead turned out to drive a near permanent wedge between them.

Vince knew the only way he’d be able to move on with his life was to cut his father out completely. That meant regardless of how he felt about GreenPro, he’d need to give in to his father and sell it. But there was no way he’d let his father be the one in charge, or to use an unsuspecting woman in his plot. Marissa Roy needed to be kept as far away from his father as possible. “Send me her information. I’ll meet her Friday.” He’d pay her and then send her on her way. She didn’t need to be dragged into this mess.

He’d half expected his father to protest, but the alcohol must have kicked in. A sloppy smile spread across his face. “About time you listened to me. I’m going to get my things and head out. The night is still young and you’re cramping my style.”

“I’ll let the limo know you’re coming out.” Vince texted the driver, instructing him to take his father back to his condo. By the time they got through traffic, he’d be in shape to go to bed and nothing more.

Walking back out to the party, Vince caught sight of Nate dancing with three women, one of whom was the costar of the movie they’d seen earlier that night. Nate caught his eye and nodded toward the women and gave him a wink. He’d have to worry about his father, GreenPro, and Marissa Roy later. Walking to the group, he smiled. “Hello ladies. Time to have some fun.”

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