The Best Man to Trust
Author:Kerry Connor

CHAPTER Two



Even before she pushed through the kitchen door and stepped into the room, Meredith was greeted by incredible aromas that immediately had her mouth watering. Based on the smells she was creating, Sutton Hall’s new cook, Ellen Barnes, had dinner well in hand. Meredith nearly let out a sigh of relief. At least one thing was going right so far this weekend.

The cook was working at the kitchen island across from the oven as Meredith entered. A full-figured woman in her forties with reddish-blond hair, she looked up with a smile, the sight of her open, friendly face instantly lightening Meredith’s mood. “Everyone settled in all right?”

“I think so,” Meredith said. Okay, so that was another thing that had gone well enough. Everyone seemed pleased with the rooms she’d given them. Even the few who’d looked a little uneasy about being here appeared to have been won over when they saw the accommodations, she thought with a touch of pride. Score one for Sutton Hall. “Rick’s helping them with their luggage. I’m going to go do the same but I thought I’d make sure everything was okay in here.”

“Yep, everything’s almost ready,” Ellen said with a satisfied nod. “I hope your guests are ready to eat.”

“Based on how they reacted when I mentioned dinner, I’d say they are. Should I tell them we’ll be ready to serve in a half an hour?”

“Sounds about right.”

“I’ll be back to help serve. Unless you need me to do anything now...?”

“Nope. I’ve got it all under control.”

Meredith couldn’t argue with her there. Everything looked as amazing as it smelled.

Not for the first time, she thought how lucky they’d been to find the woman. When they’d had to replace the original staff following the terrible events of a few months ago, she’d had her doubts about whether they’d be able to find anyone good. They couldn’t promise long-term employment at the moment. They didn’t know if they’d be able to keep the business—or Sutton Hall—going much longer. A lot depended on how the wedding went this weekend, if they could get some good publicity. Until they had a better idea of what the future held, they couldn’t hire a full-time staff.

That left them trying to find locals willing to work on a part-time or temporary basis for the time being. It hadn’t been easy. After the murder, many locals hadn’t wanted anything to do with the place. Luckily she’d found Ellen and Rick, both of whom lived in the area and had surpassed her wildest expectations.

Good thing, too. It looked like it was going to be just the three of them this weekend. While the rest of the temporary staff she’d hired had planned to drive in during the day, Rick and Ellen had both agreed to stay at Sutton Hall through the weekend even before they’d known about the storm.

“Thanks again for being willing to stay this weekend,” Meredith said.

Ellen waved off the comment with a flutter of her hand. “Doesn’t look like I’d be able to go anywhere if I wanted to.”

Meredith turned toward the windows, unable to see anything through the glass but a cloud of white. “You’re probably right about that.” The snow wasn’t supposed to stop until tomorrow evening at the earliest, with the worst yet to come tonight. No one would be getting out of here for a few days at least. They were well and truly stuck, she thought with a flicker of trepidation.

Once again, the wish that Adam and Jillian were here floated through her mind. This time she did her best to shake off the feeling. She was the one who’d wanted to open Sutton Hall for weddings. Part of that had been wanting to prove to everyone—and herself—that she was capable of running this business, that she was strong enough. With Adam and Jillian gone, this was truly it, a chance to stand on her own two feet.

The idea strengthened her resolve and she pushed away the last of her doubts.

Whatever challenges lay ahead this weekend, she’d have to handle them herself.

* * *

THE SOUND OF SILVERWARE clinking against glass cut through the light buzz of conversation in the dining room, silencing the group.

Tom looked up in time to see Greg rising to his feet, glass firmly in hand. “I’d like to make a toast,” he announced. “After all, this is a party, even if no one’s acting like it.”

A few muted chuckles greeted his comment, which was entirely too accurate. The mood in the room had been subdued ever since they’d sat down to dinner.

The rooms Meredith had led them to were all beautifully furnished and more than comfortable. The problem wasn’t with the rooms. None of them were getting cell phone reception. Whether it was due to the weather or the location—or both—wasn’t clear, but it only emphasized the fact that they were cut off out here. Isolated. Trapped.

Everyone was trying to put on a brave face, no one wanting to put a damper on Scott and Rachel’s weekend, but the tension in the room was unmistakable.

Greg turned toward Scott and Rachel, who sat together on one side of the table, and raised his glass. From the way he weaved slightly on his feet, he’d already had a few drinks.

“To Scott and Rachel,” he declared with a broad smile. “Finally together again, soon to officially be together forever. Happy wedding to you.”

“Hear! Hear!” Alex chimed in.

Everyone raised their glasses and, with a collective “cheers,” took a drink.

Over the rim of his glass, Tom watched Greg retake his seat, his hand unsteady as he reached for the chair. Greg had always been a big man, stocky rather than fat, though he seemed a little thicker around the middle. Other than the possible weight gain, Tom noted with a pang of discomfort that Greg evidently hadn’t changed much. He’d always been the life of every party, always drinking too much. In the heady days of freshman year when they’d all been on their own for the first time, his behavior had seemed fun and exciting, but by senior year it had gotten old. These many years later, it seemed even sadder.

Still, maybe he was being too hard on him, Tom acknowledged. Greg was a real estate broker and, based on the way he was dressed, a successful one. Presumably he didn’t drink like this all the time. And Greg was right, this was supposed to be a party. Not to mention more than a few of the others had wasted no time hitting the wine once they’d sat down for dinner. It probably wasn’t a surprise given the circumstances.

“Thank you everyone for coming all this way,” Scott said. “I know I speak for Rachel as well as myself when I say we’re so glad to have you here to share this occasion with us. You were there when we first met and were together. It’s only right that you be here to share this next step on our journey with us.”

“We wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” Haley said. A few others murmured their agreement.

Tom silently studied the faces gathered around the table, these people who were both so familiar and so unknown to him at the same time. It felt strange being around them for the first time in so many years, like stepping back into another life, one that didn’t even feel like it used to be his.

They all seemed to have done well for themselves. His and Haley’s flights had arrived before everyone else’s, so they’d had some time to talk at the airport before everyone else had arrived. She seemed to have a thriving career in public relations. Alex was a highly respected investigative reporter who’d already won several awards for his work. Jess was an actress who’d found some acclaim in Chicago’s renowned theater scene. Rachel was the owner of her own interior design firm. And of course, Scott’s career as an investment banker had allowed them to afford this wedding in the first place.

Only then did he remember that one face he would have expected to see here wasn’t. “What about Kim?” he asked. Kim Logan had been one of Rachel’s closest friends back in school. The two of them, plus Haley and Jessica, had been inseparable. “Couldn’t she make it?”

An awkward silence fell over the table, and he immediately knew he’d said something wrong.

Scott finally cleared his throat. “I forgot you probably hadn’t heard,” he said quietly. “Kim died a couple months ago.”

Shock jolted through him. Kim had to have been around twenty-nine or thirty like the rest of them, far too young for anyone to die. “What happened?”

“She drowned in her bathtub,” Haley said. “She’d taken too many pills and fell asleep in the tub. She probably didn’t even have a chance to save herself.”

“So it wasn’t a suicide?”

Haley shook her head. “Accidental overdose.”

Tom remembered how much Kim had loved to drink, and he’d suspected she’d consumed the occasional recreational drug now and then. She and Greg had been the wild ones in the group, the ones who’d always had a little too much fun. Evidently she’d only gotten worse over the years.

If Greg had learned anything from their friend’s death, he didn’t show it. As Tom watched, he pulled out a flask and unscrewed the top, taking a long pull from it.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Tom said.

“Not that she would have been invited anyway,” Jessica murmured under her breath, so low Tom was sure he was the only one who’d heard the comment.

He glanced at Jessica, only to find her staring into her wineglass.

“It’s just a reminder that we never know what’s going to happen,” Scott said. He reached out and took Rachel’s hand. “And how we have to live every moment to the fullest.”

“Exactly,” Haley said with a smile. “And that’s what we should be celebrating this weekend—the two of you starting a new life together.”

“Maybe in more ways than one.” Alex grinned. “How about it, you two? Any plans to start a family anytime soon?”

Scott matched his grin. “We can’t wait to have kids.” He looked at Rachel, his face practically glowing with love for her. “Right, honey?”

“Right,” Rachel said automatically, matching his smile.

Watching her, Tom felt a twinge of unease as he took in her expression. Her smile seemed strained, the single word somehow forced...

If there was anything off about her response, Scott didn’t seem to notice it. His face still beaming, he leaned in to kiss her. Her own smile deepening, Rachel accepted the kiss with unmistakable happiness, her eyes drifting shut as their lips met.

Tom nearly shook himself. He must have imagined whatever it was he thought he’d noticed. Scott was certainly much more familiar with Rachel’s expressions than he was, and if he hadn’t detected anything off about it, then there probably hadn’t been.

The door to the kitchen suddenly swung open, cutting off the rest of his thoughts. A moment later, Meredith stepped through the entryway, carrying a tray. The cook—Ellen, she’d said her name was—followed close behind, pushing a cart.

“I hope you’re ready for the main course,” Meredith announced.

“That smells incredible,” Rachel said. “What is it?”

“I made a roast,” Ellen said. The comment was immediately greeted with murmurs of excitement. Tom had to concur. The food smelled better than anything he’d had in a long time.

As Ellen placed the roast on the table, Meredith began to move around, collecting the salad plates. Tom watched her work, looking for any signs of the same tension he’d detected earlier. If she felt any, she was doing a better job of hiding it. The smile was still fixed on her face, but it seemed less forced. Even so, he noticed that she never looked directly at anyone, keeping her attention on the table and plates.

She’s uncomfortable around us, he realized. He wondered if her reaction was related to the murder or if it was them specifically who triggered her uneasiness, and if so, why that would be.

Wondered why he was analyzing the woman’s movements so closely when she was just trying to do her job. Wondered what it was about her he found so fascinating.

“Meredith,” Jessica said suddenly. “I was sorry to hear about you and Brad.”

His focus on her, Tom didn’t miss the sudden tightness that gripped Meredith’s features, her shoulders stiffening almost defensively.

She mustered a polite smile. “Thank you.”

“Divorces can be so rough. So much...unpleasantness, so many things being said.”

“That’s very true,” Meredith murmured, her eyes downcast. “If you’ll excuse me...” Without waiting for a response, she quickly turned and walked back into the kitchen.

An uncomfortable silence fell in her wake. “What was that about?” Scott asked.

“Do you remember Brad Jackson from college?” Jessica said. “She’s his ex-wife. Divorced him a couple years ago. He wanted to work things out, so she made up some stories that he used to beat her to get out of the marriage.”

“Are you sure they were stories?” Haley asked softly.

“Of course they were,” Jessica scoffed. “You remember Brad. He would never do anything like that. She was lying to get more money out of him.”

Alex cast a glance around the room. “I have to say, Jess, from the looks of this place, she doesn’t need the money.”

“This was before she inherited this place,” Jessica said.

No one had a response to that, everyone seeming to return their attention to their food simultaneously.

Frowning, Tom tried to remember Brad Jackson and managed to come up with a vague image, but nothing concrete. The name was barely familiar. He doubted he’d known the guy very well.

However, he had no trouble remembering Meredith’s reaction to the mention of her ex-husband. And everything about her response said she hadn’t been lying in the divorce.

Sympathy tugged hard in the pit of his stomach. God, what she must have gone through. He tried to imagine anyone hurting the vulnerable woman who’d just ducked out of the room. The idea was unspeakable.

Glancing at Jess, he studied the smug expression on her face. At the airport, she’d tried chatting him up a bit. He’d suspected it was because she’d thought he might have some connections in the entertainment industry to help her with her acting career. She’d come on so strong he couldn’t help but be put off by her. That was nothing compared to his reaction to her now. He wondered if she’d changed over the years, or if she’d always been this unlikable and he’d simply never noticed. They’d never been close—she’d been Rachel’s friend, not his or Scott’s—but he couldn’t remember ever being this repulsed by her.

Hiding a grimace to keep anyone from noticing his reaction, Tom turned his attention back to his plate.

He was starting to get the feeling this weekend couldn’t be over soon enough.

* * *

BY MIDNIGHT, SUTTON HALL was quiet and still. Everyone had retreated to their own rooms long ago. The corridors were heavy with shadows and silence. Most were likely in bed by now.

But not everyone.

One of the doors along the corridor slowly opened. Cold eyes surveyed the empty hallway. Once satisfied, the watcher slipped through the doorway, a smile sliding into place.

Showtime.