The Best Man to Trust
Author:Kerry Connor

CHAPTER Eight



“Hey, Meredith.”

Meredith looked up from the table where she’d begun to collect the breakfast dishes. Most of the room had cleared, but Alex lingered on the other side of the table. She suddenly felt the emptiness of the room much more strongly, keenly aware that she was completely alone with him.

She did her best to shake off the feeling. Even if he was a threat, they had the massive table separating them. If he tried anything, she could run before he made it around the thing. And Ellen was just in the kitchen behind her if she called out. “Hi, Alex. Is there something I can do for you?”

“We didn’t really get a chance to talk yesterday,” he said, gracing her with a smile. “I thought it would be nice to catch up with an old colleague from the Daily, but I wasn’t sure if you remembered me from back then.”

Her nervousness eased as she picked up on his meaning. “Of course,” she said, unable to hide her surprise. “How could I forget a fellow Daily staffer? If anything, I would have thought you didn’t remember me.”

Back in school, they’d both worked on the college paper. But while he’d been a star reporter, she’d been a cartoonist, drawing satirical cartoons and her own strip. It had been the best part of her college experience. She’d loved to draw, and with her cartoons, she’d had a chance to give voice to the thoughts and ideas she’d seldom had the guts to out loud. Even though she doubted most of the student body could have identified her on sight, she knew they were aware of her cartoons. Sometimes she’d hear people talking about them, and it hadn’t mattered that they didn’t know her. Knowing they’d enjoyed her work had been the best feeling imaginable.

She hadn’t really socialized with the rest of the paper’s staff, working on her own and submitting her stuff directly to her editor. The few times she’d attended one of the staff parties, she’d mostly found herself standing against a wall, feeling out of place and uncomfortable. Though she’d known who Alex was, she was sure they’d never spoken to each other, and she never would have thought he knew who she was.

“Hey, your stuff was some of the most popular material in the paper,” he said heartily. “I admit it took me a second to put it together, but I finally did. Do you still draw?”

Meredith didn’t let her smile slip. “Not really.”

As though caused by the thought, she felt a twinge in her right hand and flexed her fingers to try to alleviate the pain. Her hand had been broken a few years ago—Brad, she thought, reminded of the conversation earlier—and it hadn’t healed correctly. Now it hurt to grip a pencil for too long, but sometimes she found herself sketching, doing her best to ignore the pain until she no longer could, unable to resist the urge. The instinct—the need—to draw was still deeply ingrained within her, even in her broken bones.

“Aw, that’s too bad. So listen,” he said, his mood and tone abruptly shifting. “I was thinking, you mind if I join you and Tom while you go through Haley’s room? I probably know the group better than either of you and might catch a clue you wouldn’t. It couldn’t hurt to have an extra pair of eyes, right?”

So this was what he really wanted, Meredith thought wryly. All that catching up had simply been a way to ease into her good graces and get what he wanted.

She shouldn’t have been surprised. In college, he’d earned a reputation as someone who’d do anything to get a story. That had continued in his professional career. He’d quickly made a name for himself, winning awards, admiration and more than a few enemies with a number of hard-hitting exposés and investigative pieces. He seemed to relish exposing wrongdoing and fighting for the little guy.

She had a feeling she knew what drove him, she thought with a pang of sympathy. Everyone at school had known his story. Sophomore year he’d been in an accident, struck by a hit-and-run driver while he was walking just off-campus. He’d been in bad shape, broken one leg badly and suffered several other injuries. He’d been forced to miss half a semester, but he’d fought his way back, managing to graduate in time with everyone else. More important, the accident seemed to have given him an extra motivation. The driver who’d struck him had never been caught, and he’d become a much tougher reporter, turning into the relentless force who wouldn’t let anything stop him from breaking a story.

And now he was in the middle of a story. Meredith did her best to hide her discomfort. Even though she probably knew him better than anyone else in the wedding party, she still didn’t know him particularly well. Certainly not well enough to trust him.

And she didn’t, she acknowledged. There was something off-putting about the eagerness in his expression, as though he couldn’t wait to get into the dead woman’s room and go through her things.

She forced a smile. “Actually, I think it would be best to limit the number of people who go in the room, since it is a crime scene. I’d like to try to disturb it as little as possible. I’m sure you understand.”

His expression froze, but she didn’t miss the flash of anger in his eyes. From the way his lips thinned into an angry line, he didn’t understand, or at least he didn’t like it. He looked like he wanted to argue the point. Not that he had any grounds to. It was her house and her call, something he must have realized, since he’d asked her instead of suggesting it to Tom. She was the owner of Sutton Hall. Tom was the video expert. If anyone was going into the room, it was going to be the two of them.

“Sure,” he said, smiling faintly. “I understand. No problem.”

With a tight nod, he turned and walked from the room. Meredith watched him go, noticing the small, barely perceptible hitch in his step. It seemed he still had a slight limp from the accident he’d had in college. In spite of everything, she felt a twinge of sympathy. She knew all too well how the effects of some injuries could linger—physically and emotionally.

Troubled, she went over the encounter in her head as she continued clearing the table. She couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t more to his offer, a different reason he wanted access to the room than to help with the investigation. Was he hoping to write about this experience? She supposed it made sense, even if it seemed a little distasteful to be considering it so soon. Or was there something else to it....

The kitchen door swung open and Ellen stepped into the room. “All done? I can take that.”

Meredith glanced over to discover she’d fully loaded the cart without realizing it. The table was clear. “Thanks, Ellen,” she said, allowing the cook to take the cart. “I should probably go check on everyone.” She suspected more than a few of them had headed back to bed for a nap at the very least, but her encounter with Alex had left her more curious to see what she might find in Haley’s room. She should track down Tom and see if he was ready to go through it.

After holding the swinging door to let Ellen push the cart into the kitchen, Meredith stepped out of the dining room and into the hall. She drew up short when she saw two figures standing near the end where it opened up into the main foyer.

Rachel and Jessica stood close together, heads bent in conversation. They were speaking in hushed tones, their voices whispers Meredith couldn’t make out from where she stood. She could still catch the anger in them, their tones harsh and insistent as the women glared at each other, their faces dark and tense.

Meredith wasn’t sure whether she should duck back into the dining room before they noticed her. The choice was taken out of her hands an instant later when Jessica suddenly looked up, her eyes locking on Meredith.

She abruptly straightened. Noticing she’d lost Jessica’s attention, Rachel glanced over and saw Meredith, too.

Meredith watched the anger drain from their faces. Before she could say anything, Jessica quickly spun away and disappeared into the main hall. A moment later, Rachel followed, ducking her head and walking away.

What was that about? Meredith had to wonder. A continuation of their earlier argument at breakfast?

She didn’t know, and more than anything she suddenly wished she did.

* * *

STANDING IN HALEY’S room was no more comfortable in the light of day than it had been the night before. Even with the light streaming through the window, the scene was unrelentingly grim.

Mostly because the blood in the middle of the floor was impossible to avoid no matter where Meredith looked.

As she had when he’d documented the body, she stood out of the way while Tom captured the room on camera. Lingering just inside the door, she studied the space. She was glad they’d chosen to put Haley’s body in another room. This task would be even more difficult than it already was if they had to do it with the body lying there, its presence as unavoidable as the blood.

Folding her arms over her chest, Meredith fought her unease. There wasn’t much to go through, she noted, wondering if they were wasting their time. Haley had only brought two pieces of luggage with her. Both were unzipped and looked to still be full, as if she hadn’t unpacked them. Maybe she hadn’t had time to, Meredith thought with a pang. On the top of the desk was a laptop and a few manila folders, the bag she’d brought them in sitting on the desk chair.

The wardrobe against the wall opposite the bed was slightly ajar. Meredith watched as Tom opened it, revealing only two items hung inside. One was the coat Haley had been wearing yesterday when she’d arrived.

The other was a bridesmaid’s dress, still encased in a plastic bag.

Meredith couldn’t take her eyes off it, even after Tom moved on to record something else. She imagined Haley hanging up the dress, thinking about when she’d put it on in a few days. And now she never would.

The way no one might ever dress for that wedding, she thought. She hadn’t asked Scott and Rachel about their plans for the wedding, the issue somehow insignificant in the midst of everything else. She assumed they’d decided to cancel it, if they’d given any thought to it at all. There didn’t seem to be any way the wedding could go on. Not with one of the bridesmaids now dead.

Not with a killer on the loose.

“Done,” Tom said, drawing her attention back to him.

She watched him lower the camera to his side, stopping to face her. “Where do you want to get started?” he asked.

“I was just thinking there isn’t that much, is there? Just her bags and what’s on the desk.”

“Do you want to start with the bags? Get it over with?”

“Sure.” It was as good an idea as any. Meredith quickly checked through the luggage, finding nothing but the expected clothes. Not feeling all that comfortable going through a dead woman’s clothes, she finished as soon as possible, leaving the bags where they’d been.

They moved to the desk. Sitting on top of it were the laptop and manila folders she’d noticed earlier. Tom reached for the bag on the desk chair, looking inside to see if it contained anything.

Picking up one of the folders, Meredith opened it to find a small stack of photographs. She lifted them out to look closer, recognizing several of the faces in the top one. “It looks like she brought pictures of all of you in college.”

She sensed him glance over her shoulder. “Yesterday at dinner Haley said she’d planned a slideshow. I think she’d intended to display it for everyone tonight or tomorrow. She asked me if I’d help her set it up.”

His voice had softened as he spoke, the words tinged with regret.

“If she did, maybe she had it on her laptop,” Meredith said, pointing to it on the desk. “These must be extras she printed out for people to look at, or ones that weren’t digitized.”

“I wonder if it’s worth checking her computer to see if there’s anything on it....” Opening it, he began to boot the device. She watched his fingers move over the keys, her gaze drifting over his hands. He had beautiful wrists, she registered, strong, solid, lightly dusted with fine blond hairs....

It hit her what she was doing and she almost shook herself. Get a grip already. She was actually ogling the man’s wrists.

She quickly looked down at the pictures in her hands, focusing on the image on top. Four young women with their arms around one another, heads pressed together, posed for the camera, their smiles wide and beaming. Three of them were easily recognizable. Rachel was second from the left, with Haley and then Jessica to her right. The fourth face wasn’t familiar.

“Password protected,” she heard Tom say.

Meredith held up the photograph for him to see. “Who’s this?” she asked, pointing to the face on the far left.

A hint of sadness entered his eyes. “That’s Kim Logan, the fourth member of Rachel’s group. They shared an apartment off-campus the last two years of college. The four of them were as close as Scott, Greg, Alex and I were. It made kind of a nice symmetry when we used to hang out. But that ended when Scott and Rachel broke up. Rachel didn’t want to see Scott anymore, and they each kept their respective friends.”

Meredith looked at him in surprise. “Scott and Rachel broke up?”

Tom nodded. “Halfway through senior year.”

“What happened?”

“I never really knew,” Tom admitted, reaching for one of the other folders. “All I know is, when we got back from winter break, Rachel ended things with him. Scott never wanted to go into it, and I didn’t try to push him into talking about it. That’s not what guys do. I just tried to be there for him as a friend, which basically meant talking about anything else to keep his mind off it.”

“But they got back together,” Meredith noted.

“Last year, I guess. They ran into each other in the city, and evidently it was like old times. They started seeing each other again, and suddenly they were engaged. I actually found out from Scott that they were getting married before I heard they’d gotten back together.”

“So it was fast,” Meredith mused.

“Very. But it must have been right. Watching them the past couple days, it’s like no time has passed at all. Whatever happened between them, or whatever made Rachel break up with him, they seem to have gotten past it.”

“I wonder what it was.”

He shrugged. “Me, too, but I figure it’s none of my business. Kind of hard to imagine Scott doing anything, though. He was always kind of a pushover when it came to her. Some things really haven’t changed. After all, it’s why we’re here now. Rachel wanted to get married here, even though it’s so far from where everybody lives. As usual, she got her way.”

So many things had brought them to this point. If Scott and Rachel hadn’t gotten back together, would any of this be happening now? Or if Rachel hadn’t wanted everyone to come here?

Meredith studied Kim Logan’s face. She didn’t remember her, but that wasn’t a surprise. She hadn’t exactly moved in this group’s social circle. She hadn’t moved in any social circle, at least not until she’d met Brad and been reluctantly tolerated in his. “What was she like? Kim?”

“Kim was the wild one of their group. When we would all hang out, she and Greg were pretty tight. That should give you some idea what she was like. She liked to party as much as he did, and could match him shot for shot. I’m not sure what she ended up doing after college. The others said she died a few months ago, and Jessica made a comment about how she wouldn’t have been invited anyway. I’m guessing she and Rachel had some kind of falling-out.”

It was so sad, Meredith thought, looking at the two of them in the picture. They looked really close. All of them did, the tightness of their bond visibly apparent in the image. And now two of them were dead. Half of their group was gone.

She forced herself to move on to the next picture, then the rest. There were more group shots of the four girls, then some that started to include the guys. Everyone looked so young, she thought with a twinge.

And there was Tom. Not the Tom who stood beside her, but the Tom she remembered so well from those old fantasies. He looked so young. She could see what she’d seen in him back then, yet he’d improved so much with age. He really had only been a boy then. Now he was every bit a man.

Forcing herself to look away, Meredith handed him the stack of photographs to go through in case he spotted anything in them. Wiping her hands on her slacks, she scanned the space. That really was it. Everything else in the room was here when Haley arrived.

It was a good thing she’d turned down Alex’s offer to “help,” she thought. There was barely enough here for her and Tom to go through. She didn’t know what a third person could have done.

The thought reminded her of her earlier encounter with him and all the questions she’d had. “What can you tell me about Alex?” Meredith asked carefully.

“Why do you ask?” Tom said, a trace of wariness in his tone.

“After breakfast he asked me if he could come in here with us and look around, see if he could help find some clues.”

Tom relaxed imperceptibly. “Well, that makes sense. He is a reporter. He’s used to asking questions and conducting investigations. I’m not surprised he would want to get involved in the search for the killer.”

“I know,” she said. “It makes sense. But there was something about the way he asked, almost like he was too eager. I had to wonder if there was another reason he wanted to get in here.”

“He can be a little intense,” Tom admitted. “I’m sure that’s a good quality for his line of work, but it can turn people off, too. He can come on a little strong, but he’s a good guy. He’s one of the most loyal friends anyone could want.”

Meredith figured she would reserve judgment on whether Alex was really a good guy. “What kind of relationship did he and Haley have?”

Tom paused for a moment. “Actually, I think he liked her back in school,” he said thoughtfully. “But nothing ever came of it. I don’t think she was interested.” He shook his head. “I’d forgotten about that.”

“Do you remember if he was upset about it?”

“I doubt it. I hate to say it, but he was probably used to it. Back then, Alex never had much luck with girls. He was pretty awkward with them. It was that intensity thing. He would always get really serious and want to talk about issues and stuff like that. He seems a lot smoother now from what I can tell.” He smiled slightly. “Greg was always the ladies’ man of our group. And Scott was all about Rachel. Even after they broke up, he didn’t date much through the rest of college.”

“What about you?” she asked without thinking. “You weren’t a ladies’ man?”

Almost as soon as she asked the question, she wished she hadn’t. She sounded a little too interested.

If he noticed, he didn’t show it. He chuckled lightly, a touch of self-deprecation in the sound. “Not really. I dated a few girls, but nothing too serious. What Scott and Rachel had was nice, but I really wasn’t looking for anything like that. And I never met anybody who tempted me to change my mind.”

“You didn’t want to settle down,” she said, more of an observation than a question.

“No,” he agreed with a small smile. “I grew up in a small town in Minnesota. I wanted to get out there, see the world. Experience what’s out there.”

“And you did,” she said, matching his smile. She had to admire that about him. He was a man who’d had a dream and managed to fulfill it. How many people could say that at any age, let alone before the age of thirty?

“So what’s next for you?” she asked. “What do you want to do now?”

“I’m still figuring that out,” he admitted. “What about you? Do you keep in touch with people from school?”

She shrugged halfheartedly. “Not really. I didn’t have a lot of close friends back then. I guess I was kind of a loner. When I started seeing Brad, I kind of got swept up in his group, and after we graduated and got married, I lost touch with the few people I was close to.”

“How long were you married?”

“Four years,” she said softly.

“So you got married right out of college?”

“We lived together for a year first.” She frowned. “Did you really mean what you suggested at breakfast? You think Brad could be responsible?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Part of it was just trying to think of who might want to hurt you. Part of it was being tired of hearing about him and just plain not liking the guy.”

“You don’t even know him,” Meredith pointed out.

He looked at her, his expression solemn. “He hurt you,” he said gravely. “That’s reason enough.”

A curious warmth rolled through her at both the seriousness of the words and the intensity of his expression. It didn’t sound like he was simply being polite. It almost sounded personal.

“But you tell me,” he continued. “You know him better than I do. Do you think he could be involved in this?”

Meredith frowned, considering the question. She knew Brad had been angry about the divorce, in spite of everything he’d done. It was one reason she’d been glad to get away from Chicago, needing the physical distance between them. And she knew better than anyone he was capable of violence when he was angry. But to murder an innocent person just to get back at her? If anything it seemed more likely that he would take his anger out on her directly.

Of course, there was a time she never would have believed he’d ever hurt her. She was both an expert at knowing what Brad was capable of, and someone with a history of underestimating him.

“I don’t know,” she finally said. “It seems like a lot of trouble to go to in order to hurt me, instead of simply coming after me directly.”

“He must have been pretty bitter about your divorce, and still is, if he’s complaining about it over a year later.”

“He was,” she said quietly. “He tried to fight the divorce. At first, he swore that he loved me and he’d change. And when that didn’t work, he got furious and said that we’d made those vows until death. But all that did was remind me exactly why I needed to get away from him.”

“I’m glad you did,” he said.

“If I did,” she pointed out. “If he’s not somehow involved in this—”

He suddenly frowned, his brow furrowing and eyes sliding away from hers. She started to drift off in midsentence, about to ask what was wrong. He suddenly twirled his finger, prompting her to continue, and mouthed, Keep talking.

Not understanding, she still tried to comply, scrambling to pick up her earlier train of thought. “Hopefully the phone lines will be up soon and we can contact the police. Even if they can’t get through due to the storm, they should be able to check where he is...”

She continued talking as he slowly, cautiously made his way to the door, leaning toward it with one ear, as though he was listening for something. Which was exactly what he was doing, she realized. When he was almost there, he slowly reached out to grasp the knob...

The door abruptly swung inward, slamming right into him.

With a curse, he reeled backward. Meredith stopped in shock, her monologue forgotten, then lurched toward him. By the time she did, he managed to steady himself. Lunging forward, he grabbed the door and ripped it open, bursting out into the hall. His face dark with anger, he checked in both directions.

Meredith stepped into the hall behind him, doing the same. There was no one in sight. The corridor was empty, all the doors along it closed.

“Did you see anyone?” she asked.

“No,” he said tersely. “Whoever it was either managed to get into one of the rooms or made it to the stairs.”

Meredith eyed the closed doors. Haley’s room was roughly in the middle of the ones where she’d placed the wedding party. Scott and Rachel’s room was one door down on one side to give them some privacy, with Jessica’s next door on the other side and Tom, Greg and Alex across the hall. Whoever had been there could have easily escaped to one of the rooms, or even the staircase, which wasn’t far, by the time Tom had recovered and made it into the hall.

“What do you think they were doing there?” she asked. “Listening to us?”

“I’m sure they were,” he confirmed. “And they didn’t want us to know.”

“How did you know?”

“I thought I heard the floor creak outside the door. Now we just have to wonder how long they were there.”

And whether whoever it was had heard anything important. Meredith doubted it. She and Tom had simply been speculating. Yet whoever it was still hadn’t wanted them to know who’d been listening, going far enough to lash out to prevent them from catching him or her.

Meredith looked up at Tom, noticing the red spot on his forehead where the door had slammed into him. Cringing, she reached up without thinking to brush her fingers over the spot. “Does it hurt?”

As soon as her fingertips made contact with his skin, she froze. Her eyes shot to his to find him watching her, his deep blue gaze intent and unyielding. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking, couldn’t read the emotion in those depths. Everything in her wanted to keep trying, unable to bring herself to look away.

It occurred to her she should drop her hand, even as she registered the warmth and smoothness of his skin against hers. It was rude to just reach out and touch him like this. She had no right.

But he didn’t offer a word of objection, simply watching her, his expression inscrutable.

“Not too much,” he said softly, the sound of his voice washing over her skin. “I’ll be fine.”

“Good.” Her voice sounding tight to her ears, she quickly pulled her hand away and glanced back at the room. “Is there anything else we need to do in here?”

She sensed him follow her gaze. “I don’t think so. I think we checked everything there is. Do you want to check the rest of the house? Just to be safe?”

It wasn’t a bad idea. She doubted there was anyone unknown to her hiding in the house. But reality said she couldn’t be absolutely certain of that without checking. And given everything that had happened so far, they couldn’t afford to take any chances.