The Best Man to Trust
Author:Kerry Connor

CHAPTER Three



Midnight, Meredith noted, studying the clock on the stove. She really should go to bed, even though she knew there was no chance of her falling asleep anytime soon.

She sat alone in the mammoth kitchen of Sutton Hall, perched on a stool at the center island, nursing a cup of hot chocolate that was starting to turn cold. Only the row of lights above the island was on, leaving the rest of the room under cover of darkness.

It should have been unsettling, sitting in the massive room surrounded by shadows, the silence echoing around her. It made her feel utterly alone. At the moment, that seemed more comforting than threatening. She’d had enough of people for one day, and nothing that lurked in the darkness could be as dangerous as what was in her own head.

She’d known this weekend would inevitably bring up some memories. She’d even thought someone might mention Brad, might know about the divorce. But somehow she hadn’t expected anyone would know how terrible their marriage had been—or would bring it up so deliberately.

Most days she didn’t even think about him, and considered herself lucky that was the case. But Jessica Burke’s comments had ripped the lid off that tiny box in the back of her mind where she usually managed to keep her memories locked up tight. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t seem to get that lid back on. There was no avoiding the memories, no blocking out the things she wished she could forget.

The way his face looked, both beaming with love...and twisted with hatred.

The sound of his voice, roaring with contempt and rage.

The words he used to fling at her, hitting right at every deep-seated fear and insecurity, the ones she still heard sometimes in her dreams.

You’re worthless. You’re nothing.

His words hadn’t hurt her. How could they? He hadn’t been telling her anything she didn’t already know.

No, his words hadn’t hurt her. He’d had to use his fists for that.

And so he had.

The door to the dining room suddenly sprang into motion, jolting her out of her thoughts. Meredith shot upright in her seat, her heart jumping, as the door slowly swung open.

Seconds later, Tom Campbell stepped through the entryway and into the room.

As it always seemed to, everything inside her went still for a moment as she breathed in the sight of him. Even in the dim lighting of the room, there was no mistaking how good-looking he was, the faint glow catching every perfect angle on his face, his hair still gleaming and golden.

Stop it, she told herself as her heart finally kicked back into motion, beating harder and faster than before. It was pathetic. Ten years after the first time she’d seen him, and she was still struck dumb by the sight of the man, still that pitiful girl hoping a boy like that would notice her when he never had.

This time he did see her, though, his eyes falling on her an instant later and widening in surprise.

And damned if something inside her didn’t melt just a little bit in response.

“Oh,” he said, his lips curving in a wry smile. “I wasn’t expecting to find anyone in here.”

A small chuckle worked its way from her lungs. “I wasn’t expecting company, either, so I guess that makes two of us.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice softening with genuine concern. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You didn’t,” she lied. “Did you need something?”

“I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I might try to get a snack or something. I hope that’s all right...”

“Of course,” Meredith said with her best hostess smile, rising from her seat. “The kitchen is always open to guests, and we make sure to keep some cold cuts and other snacks on hand in the fridge. I think there’s some cake left over from dinner and some cookies, too. What can I get you?”

“Actually, whatever it is you’re drinking smells great.”

“It’s just hot chocolate.”

“I wouldn’t say no to that. I can make it myself if you tell me where—”

“No, no,” she said, waving him toward the kitchen island. “You’re a guest here. It’s no trouble.”

Meredith quickly moved to the counter for a mug. Behind her, she heard him pull a stool out from the island to take a seat.

“So,” he said. “Are you here because you’re really that dedicated to serving your guests, or couldn’t you sleep, either?”

“I wish I could say it’s the first one, but I have to admit, I have a lot on my mind.” Wanting to dodge any question of what it might be that was keeping her up, she went for the obvious one. “I’m sure you heard about what happened to our first wedding here.”

“The murdered bride. I’m surprised you wanted to have any more weddings here after that.”

“I wasn’t sure I did,” Meredith said. “I was surprised Rachel wanted to go ahead with having hers, but as long as she did I couldn’t say no.”

“When it goes well, maybe it’ll give this place a clean slate.”

She didn’t miss the fact that he said “when” the wedding went well, not “if.” She had to appreciate his confidence, or at least that he was capable of such positive thinking. “I hope so,” she agreed. “What about you? What’s keeping you up?”

“Guess I’m just trying to process everything that happened today, how different everybody is. It feels a little strange being around everyone after all this time.”

“You didn’t keep in touch with any of them over the years?”

“Not really. Only Scott, and then we’d only talk every once in a while, grab a drink when I was in town. After we graduated, I got caught up in work and sort of lost touch with everybody else.”

“I think someone said you work in television?”

“I’m a cameraman and on-site producer for a show called On the Wild Side.” He paused. “At least I was. The show was just canceled. You’d think I’d be used to it by now but I guess it’s still too new.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “That’s why you were able to make it to the wedding after all?”

“Yeah. I guess that’s one good thing to come out of it.”

His hot chocolate finally prepared, Meredith turned back to face him, setting the mug in front of him. “Here you go.”

“Thanks.” Reaching for the mug, he looked up and met her eyes. His gaze was unexpectedly serious, and her skin tingled under the force of his attention. “I’m sorry about your marriage.”

Meredith wasn’t sure which was more surprising, the words themselves or the genuine emotion in his voice as he said them. She ignored the painful twinge in her chest at the memory and forced a smile. “Thank you.”

“I didn’t really know Brad in college.”

Me, either, she thought grimly. She hadn’t gotten to know who he really was until much later. “You didn’t miss out on much.” Realizing she might be opening the door to more questions she didn’t want to answer, she gave her head a quick shake. “What about you? Been down the aisle yourself?”

He smiled ruefully. “No. Between traveling so much for work and never meeting anyone who’s made me even consider it, I haven’t come anywhere close.”

“Maybe that’s what’s keeping you up,” she suggested lightly. “All this talk about the wedding and impending marriage can’t be much fun for a single guy.”

He chuckled. “I don’t have any aversion to marriage. My parents have a great one. I definitely want to get married someday. I just have to find the right woman.”

“I’m sure you will,” she said, having trouble believing he hadn’t already.

He shrugged one shoulder carelessly. “I hope you’re right.”

As he took a sip from his cup, Meredith couldn’t help smiling to herself. Never in a million years would she ever have expected to be talking to Tom Campbell, under any circumstances, let alone late at night, in the massive kitchen of a nineteenth-century mansion she’d inherited.

Just another example of how life really doesn’t happen the way you expect it, she thought, nearly shaking her head in amazement.

And somehow he’d managed to live up to every fantasy she’d once had of him. Deep down she’d had this fear that he was actually a jerk. No one that good-looking could be a nice guy, could he? Yet here he was, even better-looking than she remembered, even nicer than she’d ever dreamed, talking to her, of all people.

She watched him tilt his head back, draining the last of the hot chocolate from his mug, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed.

He lowered the cup to the counter with a soft sigh of satisfaction. “I think that was exactly what I needed.”

“Time for bed then?” she asked. Only after the words came out did she realize how they might have sounded.

If he detected any innuendo in them, he didn’t show it, simply returning her smile. The warmth on that impossibly handsome face sent a fresh wave of heat rushing through her. “I think so. You?”

She nodded. “I should. I have an early day tomorrow.” Actually, it already was tomorrow, she realized. She’d be lucky to get a few hours of sleep.

Taking his cup, Meredith placed both mugs in the sink, then moved to the door where he waited, shutting off the lights behind her.

Together they made their way through the dining room and into the main hall.

“It was nice talking to you,” Tom said as they reached the staircase.

“You, too,” she said, and smiled, warmth spilling through her chest.

He opened his mouth to say something else.

He didn’t get the chance.

A sound suddenly sliced through the stillness, cutting off whatever he’d been about to say. Loud. Shrill.

A scream.

Meredith shot a glance at Tom, their eyes meeting for a split second, the surprise in his matching her own, just before another scream reached them, then another.

It was a woman, screaming over and over again, each shriek louder and more filled with terror than the last.

They bolted in unison for the stairs. Her heart in her throat, Meredith took them two at a time, Tom right by her side. All the while it felt like she was moving too slow, the screams ringing over and over.

She finally reached the second floor, rounding the corner to peer down the hall.

A woman stood in the middle of the hallway, her back to them. It was Jessica, Meredith recognized, taking in the woman’s height and the color of her hair. She was the one who was screaming.

Meredith instantly picked up a burst of speed, hurrying toward the woman. “Jessica?”

The woman didn’t react to the sound of her name, her screams going on and on. “Jessica! What is it? What’s wrong?”

No response. Meredith reached out, ready to grab the woman’s shoulder, anything to get her attention, when her gaze fell past Jessica to the floor in front of her.

Shock ripped through her. Meredith missed a step and stumbled, pitching forward. An instant later, she felt a hand close around her elbow, steadying her. Tom, she recognized instinctively. The knowledge barely penetrated, every bit of her brainpower focused on the sight in front of her, on trying to make sense of it, on trying to absorb the horror that surged from her gut and rose in her throat.

No. It can’t be. It can’t—

But it was. No matter how many times she blinked, the sight refused to go away.

Haley lay in the middle of the hallway, her eyes staring upward, a knife sticking out of her chest.