The Perfect Bride
Author:Kerry Connor

Chapter Nine

Adam had to give Grace credit. By the time she stood in his office facing him and Meredith, she’d regained her composure, looking them straight in the eye as though she didn’t have anything to regret or hide.

“Why didn’t you tell us about the passages?” he asked bluntly.

“I didn’t know if you would want me to reveal such a thing to a guest and haven’t had a chance to speak with either of you privately about it since then.”

“We’ve been here almost a year. You’ve had plenty of time to tell us about the passages.”

“I apologize for the oversight.”

Adam didn’t believe for a second it was simply something she’d neglected to tell them. No, she’d purposely chosen not to. He studied her closely. In the past year he’d come to know her as being exceedingly competent and highly organized. But he realized he had never really gotten to know the woman herself, who she was, what made her tick.

Still, there was one thing he was fairly certain about at the moment. “You don’t like us being here, do you?”

Grace didn’t even blink. “It’s your property. That was what Jacob wanted.”

It wasn’t the first time she’d referred to the previous owner of Sutton Hall by his first name. It had never struck Adam as unusual—everyone who’d been here for years called him Jacob—but for some reason, the way she said it sounded more personal to his ear. “But not what you wanted.”

“It wasn’t my decision to make.”

The way she was deliberately not answering was as telling as if she had. He decided a different tack was called for. “You know,” he said carefully, “if you’re not comfortable working for us, you might be happier elsewhere.”

She bristled, her spine going ramrod straight. “This is my home.”

“I understand that. And I believe we made it clear when we came here that we’d like to be able to keep everyone on so you can remain here. But we can’t have people working for us we can’t trust. This business is too important to both Meredith and me. I hope you understand that.”

“Of course,” she said stiffly.

“Good. Now, is there anything else you think Meredith and I should know about Sutton Hall that we don’t already?”

Grace paused for a brief moment as though seriously considering it, then finally said, “I don’t believe so.”

Did that mean there really wasn’t anything they should know, or that Grace didn’t think they should know anything else? Still not in the mood to trust the woman, Adam wasn’t sure which possibility he was more inclined to believe.

Even so, from the woman’s body language he doubted pressing her would result in getting anything else from her at the moment. He’d have to be satisfied for now—and keep a closer eye on her.

“All right,” he said. “That will be all, then. Thank you, Grace.”

With a tight nod, she pivoted on her heel and strode to the door.

When she was almost there, he called out. “Grace?”

She glanced back, a noticeable hint of nervousness on her face.

“Do you know why the passageways are there?”

“I believe they were intended to be used by the servants, to allow them to bring up food quickly from the kitchen without having to travel through the whole house.”

That made sense given their location, Adam admitted. The rooms in the towers and the ones directly next to them were the biggest in the house and the most likely to be occupied by important people in the household, who would require the best service. With the kitchen near the center of the ground floor, a servant could easily pass through the servants’ hallways down there and up through the towers.

“And who else knows about the passages?”

“The rest of the staff, I believe.”

And not one of them thought to tell him and Meredith. Maybe they’d assumed that it was Grace’s job to do so and that she would, or maybe they’d simply been following her lead in keeping them secret. Either way, Adam didn’t think it said much about their loyalty to him and Meredith.

“Thank you.”

When the door closed behind her, Adam glanced at Meredith, who hadn’t said a word during the meeting. “Do you think I was too hard on her?”

“No,” she said with a slight shake of her head. “She should have told us. You have to wonder what else she’s keeping from us.”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” he said. “Do you think we should fire her?”

“I’d hate to. Like she said, this is her home. She’s been here for so long. I don’t know where she’d go.”

“For all we know she has a million bucks stashed away and a thousand relatives she can go to.”

“Just another indication of how little we know her.”

“The question is, what should we do about the tunnels? I’m not really comfortable knowing there’s a series of passages within the house that allow people access to so much of the house and apparently some of the rooms. At the very least, it could pose an issue for guest safety.”

The color drained from her face. “You think Jillian won’t want to stay?”

Adam grimaced. “No, I think she doesn’t intend to go anywhere. I’m more concerned with her wandering around in the walls and having the run of the place.”

“You’re right. That’s probably not a good idea. It might not be safe.”

For more than one reason, Adam thought. Besides the obvious risk that she might be injured, he still didn’t trust why she’d gone searching for those tunnels in the first place or why she was so determined to explore them. The woman was up to something, and whatever it was he doubted it would be good for them.

Before he and Grace had left the kitchen to find Meredith, he’d casually suggested to Rosie and Jillian that it might be a good time for them to go over the wedding menu. As expected, Rosie had jumped at the idea. He hadn’t missed the irritated look Jillian had shot him, making it clear she hadn’t liked being saddled with a babysitter. He’d almost pointed out that she should be happy talking about the menus, since they were for her wedding. He would have enjoyed getting her response to that.

But the fact of the matter was, he couldn’t expect to keep her occupied and chaperoned the whole time she was here.

This could be exactly what he needed to force her to leave.

Except, as he’d said, he didn’t believe for a second she’d go that easily.

* * *

“NOW, CHICKEN IS always a good choice for an entrée,” Rosie declared. “It’s popular, just about anybody can eat it and there are so many ways I can prepare it....”

Seated at the kitchen island, Jillian fought her impatience with the situation—and her irritation with the man who’d put her in it. She hadn’t missed the small, smug smile Adam had tossed her as Rosie effectively trapped her in the kitchen to go over the wedding menu. Just the thought of it—and him—brought back the frown she was trying to resist showing.

The man was diabolical.

She didn’t have time for this. She needed to get out of here.

Not really listening as Rosie went on, she waited for her first chance to escape. The only other thing standing in her way was Ed. He sat on the other side of the island, slowly drinking a cup of coffee, giving no indication he was paying any attention to her or listening to anything his wife said.

Jillian studied him out of the corner of her eye. His head was bowed slightly, a small smile on his lips, his gaze focused on the counter in front of him, as though his thoughts were far away. Once again, she tried to get a sense of what the man was thinking, but his expression was as carefully guarded as everyone else’s around here.

“On the other hand, I do know where I can get some good quality beef if that’s more what you have in mind....”

Rosie stepped into the pantry adjoining the kitchen, the rest of her comment drifting out into the room as she kept talking.

This was her chance. Jillian shot a glance at Ed.

And met his eyes.

She realized with a jolt he hadn’t been as uninvolved as he’d appeared. He’d been waiting for Rosie to step out, too.

The smile on his face was friendly, pleasant. She saw immediately it didn’t reach his eyes. They were much more direct, almost pointed.

He jerked his head slightly to the left. “Door’s right over there,” he said mildly, almost under his breath, indicating the one that led outside.

She wondered briefly why he was helping her escape his wife. Rosie wouldn’t be happy Jillian was gone, and she seemed to have no trouble taking out her irritations on her husband. He was probably going to be berated as soon as Rosie found her missing.

Whatever the reason, she wasn’t going to turn down the help, especially not when Rosie could come out of the pantry at any moment. “Thank you,” she murmured, quickly rising to her feet.

He didn’t respond, simply lowering his eyes and lifting his cup to his lips.

Without a glance back, Jillian hurried to the side door and ducked outside.

She did so without an ounce of regret. She didn’t have time to deal with her pretend wedding. She had more important things to think about.

Quickly moving along the side of the house, she drew in a breath. It felt good to be outside after wandering around in the walls, and the fresh air might be just what she needed to clear her head and think.

Now that she knew about the passageway, it just left the question of who had actually used it last night to attack her. Grace had obviously known about it, and Jillian had to believe the rest of the staff did as well. Any one of them could have used it. At least, any one of them with access to the house, she amended. She wondered briefly if that meant she could eliminate Ray and Zack. Unlike Grace, Rosie and Ed, they didn’t live within Sutton Hall. Then again, she wouldn’t be surprised if Ray or Zack had keys to the main house, or knew an alternate way in, which meant they were still as viable as suspects as anyone.

Noticing she’d nearly reached the gardens, she turned and studied the lush greenery up ahead. They weren’t far from the side door to the kitchen; she could have taken this route yesterday when she’d wanted to see the tower. Which meant that if Ray or Zack did have a key, it wouldn’t have been much trouble for either of them to get from the groundskeeper’s cottage to the kitchen and up to her room.

She was standing there, considering the possibilities, when the sound of approaching footsteps reached her. She looked up just in time to see Ray coming around the corner. He came to an abrupt stop as soon as he saw her, his expression quickly souring.

As if realizing at the last moment that he had to be polite, he managed to work up a thoroughly unconvincing smile and nodded. “Afternoon.”

“Hi there.”

Apparently satisfied the formalities had been dispensed with, he lowered his head and walked around her, continuing on his way.

She quickly moved to follow him, not about to lose this chance to talk to him. “It’s a beautiful day out.”

“Enjoy it while you can. Supposed to be a storm coming in tomorrow.”

“I noticed you don’t live in the house like Grace and the Warrens. Do you have your own quarters?”

“There’s a groundkeeper’s cottage out back.”

“Is that where you raised Zack?”

“Yep.”

“Zack mentioned his mother took off when he was a child.”

“The boy talks too much,” he muttered.

“That must have been very hard on you.”

“It wasn’t the most fun day of my life, but we got by.”

“Did you ever hear from her again?”

“Nope. And good riddance.”

“That didn’t worry you?”

He snorted. “No. Why would it?”

“Something could have happened to her. She might not even be alive anymore.”

“Not my concern.”

She frowned at the coldness in his voice. “She’s still the woman you married, still Zack’s mother.”

He came to an abrupt halt and whirled to face her. “And she didn’t want to be either one. Some women aren’t cut out to be a wife or a mother. I only wish she would have figured that out beforehand and saved us all the trouble.”

She stared at him, fighting a shudder at the utter coldness on his face. “I—I’m sorry.”

“You ask a lot of questions.”

Jillian mustered a smile. “I’m curious about people.”

“No offense, ma’am, but you can go be curious somewhere else. I have work to do.”

With that, he put his back to her and continued down the path, quickly vanishing behind the greenery. Jillian didn’t bother to try to follow him. She figured she’d gotten as much out of him as she was going to, and probably far more than she had any right to expect.

Considering his words, she made her way back to the entrance to the garden.

Her head lowered in thought, she was nearly to the front of the house when she spotted something blocking the path in front of her. She jerked her head up.

Adam stood a few feet away, watching her. At the sight of him, the sunlight shining down upon him, her heart jumped. Out of surprise, she told herself, unwilling to admit it was from anything else. Like how good he looked in the sunlight.

The sunlight that still couldn’t illuminate the darkness in his eyes.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he said.

She held her hands out, palms toward him. “Well, here I am.”

His eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What are you doing out here?”

“After wandering around in those tunnels I figured I could use the fresh air.”

The way his lips thinned, Jillian knew he didn’t exactly believe her. “That’s actually why I was looking for you,” he said, his tone sending a prickle of warning down her spine. “Could I see you in my office?”

* * *

THEY DIDN’T SPEAK as they made their way back into the house.

When they arrived back at his study, Adam held the door for Jillian to enter first before following her inside. As soon as the door was closed behind him, he strode past her toward the desk.

“What’s this about?” she asked.

Adam stopped behind the desk and turned to face her. “Given this recent...discovery, I’m not sure we can allow you to stay here any longer.”

She hadn’t moved closer, still standing near the door. She simply looked at him, as though not understanding. “Why not?”

“I don’t know how extensive the passages are or what condition they’re in, and frankly, I can’t trust that you’ll stay out of them.”

“We were both in them and they were perfectly fine.”

“You can’t know that for sure. We couldn’t really see much with your flashlight. And even if they were perfectly fine, you still managed to fall.”

“It was a little stumble. It could have happened anywhere.” She held up a hand when he would have interrupted. “But if it would make you more comfortable, what if I agree to stay out of the passageways?”

He almost laughed. “Like I said, I don’t think I can trust you. To stay out of them,” he added, almost as an afterthought.

From her narrowed eyes, she hadn’t missed that little pause.

“Alternately...”

Jillian immediately perked up, exactly as he’d known she would.

Adam picked up a piece of paper. Glancing at it, he grimaced, then slid it across the desk to her. “You can sign this waiver releasing us from any liability in case of injury.”

Eyeing him closely, she slowly edged to the desk and took the paper from him.

“Are you expecting something to happen to me?”

“Are you so sure it won’t?”

“Like I told you, I can take care of myself. Unless there’s a reason you don’t think I can...”

He nearly shook his head. She was impossible. “It wouldn’t be responsible of me not to consider any possible consequences.”

She stared at him for a long moment, and he wondered if she might actually decline to sign the document, felt a flicker of hope that this might be what got her to leave.

Lowering the paper to the desktop, she picked up the pen beside it and signed on the designated line.

Damn it.

Before she could pull her hand away, he reached out and caught her arm, holding her in place. Her eyes flew to his.

“It’s really that important for you to be here?” he demanded.

“Yes, it is,” she said seriously, her gaze as steely as he knew his own had to be. Then she slowly smiled, forcing a lightness in her tone and expression that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I want the wedding of my dreams.”

Damn her. He didn’t know what game she was playing, but it was clear she intended to play it out to the end. He just wasn’t sure what the end would be, more convinced than ever it would be a bad one. For all of them.

Yet knowing that didn’t get him to release her from his hold. Didn’t keep him from noticing just how soft her skin was, or how fast her pulse was racing beneath his fingertips. Even as he registered it, he felt it kick up another notch, throbbing insistently under his touch. Felt his own pick up speed in response, the heat of her skin seeming to sink into his own, entering his bloodstream and sending a straight shot of adrenaline to his heart.

Neither of them moved. He waited for her to resist, to try to pull away, to seem outraged, to prove that one of them was sane.

She didn’t, remaining utterly still, simply staring back at him. He might have believed she was completely unaffected. Except he knew she wasn’t. He held the evidence in his hands, her pulse still pounding unsteadily beneath his fingers.

Was this all part of her game?

The fact that he didn’t know—and that it wasn’t enough to kill his own foolish reaction—was reason enough to let her go.

He made himself relax his fingers and release her, even when all he wanted to do was pull her closer.

She took a single step back, letting her arm fall to her side.

“Is that all?” she said blandly.

“That’s all.”

With a slight nod, she turned her back to him. She walked to the door at an unhurried pace, as though nothing had happened, as though she hadn’t been affected by the contact at all. He watched her every step of the way, unable to look away.

So he didn’t miss it when, just before she slipped out the door, she reached out and touched the wrist he’d held with her opposite hand, rubbing lightly at the spot where his fingers had been.

A strange combination of victory and dread rose inside him. She hadn’t been as immune to the moment as she wanted to pretend.

She’s either engaged or a liar, he reminded himself.

And more than ever, he suddenly wasn’t sure which he wanted her to be less.

* * *

THE SLUT WAS too clever for her own good. Somehow she’d managed to find the passages and ruin everything. They were no longer secret enough, no longer safe to use.

It wasn’t going to be enough to save her.

All of this could have been avoided if she had died the way she was supposed to—a tragic, untimely death in her sleep.

Instead she lived. To continue planning her wedding, all the while panting after a man who wasn’t her husband-to-be. Wandering alone with him in those very passages. Going to his office for private meetings.

When she’d come out she’d been flushed, her face dark red, a small, slight smile on her lips. Agitated. Excited.

Aroused?

Disgusting.

She had to be stopped. And she would be.

Soon.





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