The Perfect Bride
Author:Kerry Connor

Chapter Two

“Here we are,” Meredith declared with a cheerfulness that was starting to sound forced. “I think you’ll be pleased. This is one of the largest rooms in the house, with its own private bathroom, and it has a wonderful view.” Pushing the door open and reaching in to flip on the lights, she stepped aside to let Jillian enter first.

The room she’d led Jillian to was on the second floor in the east wing near the front of the manor. Courtney had been staying in one of the tower rooms, Jillian knew, the one at the top of the tower at the other end of the east wing. Jillian had to believe it was nicer and had an even better view since it had been given to the first bride to come to Sutton Hall, but considering what had happened to that bride, Jillian could understand why Meredith had chosen differently for her.

Even so, it took only one glimpse of the room to prove Meredith had given her little reason to complain. The suite was every bit as nice as she’d said. A glorious four-poster bed stood against the right wall. Plush rugs covered the floors, and while there may not have been a balcony, the windows offered stunning views of the mountains, flooding the room with sunlight.

“It’s lovely,” Jillian said to the woman’s expectant silence, not having to fake the admiration in her voice.

“I’m glad you like it,” Meredith said with obvious pleasure.

“Is anyone else staying nearby?”

“Adam and I are both at the end of the hall, far enough that you should have privacy, but close enough if you need us.”

“Great.” It would have been better for her purposes if there was no one remotely close by, but that was probably too much to expect. Given what had happened to Courtney, they likely wanted to keep a closer eye on their guests during their time here. It was just another challenge she’d have to deal with.

“I thought we could meet in a little while to begin going over the plans,” Meredith said. “I have plenty of ideas and options to show you, and of course I want to know everything you’re thinking of. And Rosie, our cook, is ready to go over potential menus with you.”

Jillian did her best to look properly enthused. Faking excitement for the wedding plans would be the hardest part of her mission here, hands down. “I can’t wait. Just give me some time to freshen up and I’ll be raring to go.”

“Wonderful,” Meredith said. “Well then, I’ll give you a chance to settle in.”

Mustering a smile, Jillian tried not to let her relief show. Truth be told, the woman’s nervous chatter was beginning to wear on her nerves. “That would be great, thanks.”

“Welcome to Sutton Hall,” Meredith said, then turned and walked to the door, gently closing it behind her.

As soon as the door was shut, Jillian released a long, slow breath and sagged onto the bed. Shoulders slumping, she surveyed her opulent surroundings.

She’d done it. She was here.

That was the easy part.

Now she had a mystery to solve.

* * *

ALONE AT LAST.

Lowering himself into the desk chair, Adam savored the silence that surrounded him. When he’d first arrived at Sutton Hall, the room that had served as Jacob Sutton’s study had been a disaster, packed with so much paper and clutter he’d barely been able to move through the space. Clearly Jacob had let things get away from him over the years. It had taken almost a full year, but Adam had managed to get the space in order. The study finally felt like his, a private sanctuary that offered a welcome place to retreat into his thoughts for a while. In the past month he’d needed that more than ever.

A brisk knock on the door suddenly interrupted the silence, the noise pulling a sigh from his lungs. So much for that.

He’d barely glanced up before the door opened and Meredith stepped into the room.

“Hey there,” he said, his irritation fading. “She all settled in?”

“I think so. I asked Zack to move her car to the garage and bring her bags in.”

Adam frowned. “I could have done that.”

“I know. I was going to ask you, but I wasn’t sure I wanted you interacting with her again so soon.” She folded her arms over her chest and matched his frown. “What was that out there?”

“What was what?”

Meredith shot him a pointed look. “You know what I’m talking about. You weren’t exactly laying out the welcome mat. You were practically interrogating her.”

“Maybe she needs to be interrogated,” he murmured.

Her frown deepened. “Do you really believe that?”

Adam released a frustrated sigh. “I don’t know. I just think it’s very strange that this woman showed up so soon after what happened to Courtney Miller, has no problem having her wedding here and came here alone, the same way Courtney did. That doesn’t strike you as odd?”

“Maybe a little,” she admitted faintly. “After Courtney died, I thought we’d need a miracle to keep going. Maybe this is the one we need.”

Regret shot through him, not for the first time, in the face of his sister’s open vulnerability. He hated being the one to challenge her hopes that this could all still work out, but he had to be realistic, for both of their sakes. “Maybe,” he hedged, no doubt sounding as certain as he felt about the possibility that miracles existed, or that they would be lucky enough to be granted one.

“You said you were going to look in to her,” Meredith pointed out.

“I did.”

“And what’d you find?”

He hesitated before grudgingly admitting, “Nothing. She seems to be exactly who she claims to be.” Jillian Jones was a graphic designer who lived in San Francisco. Up until six months ago, she’d worked at a large advertising agency. She’d recently started her own freelance business that was just getting off the ground. She wasn’t a reporter or an investigator of some kind, someone he could imagine wanting to come here to stir up the mess surrounding Courtney Miller. The woman’s loved ones had understandably raised a fuss over her death, despite the fact that it had been a tragic accident, and he’d had to consider the possibility someone might come here acting on their behalf. That didn’t appear to be the case, but that still left the possibility she could be some kind of morbid ghoul who got her kicks out of tragic events. Either way, it would be trouble they didn’t need—which was exactly what his gut was telling him she was.

“Well, then what more do you want?” Meredith asked.

“For this to feel right, and it doesn’t.”

“I think you’re just being overly cautious,” she said. “Which you have every right to be after what happened. But maybe it’s time things started going our way. Her wedding is our second chance to make this work. If it doesn’t, we’re not going to get a third one.”

“I know,” he said gently. “And I want this to work as much as you do.”

“Do you?”

“Yes.” No, he thought, because no one could want this to work as much as she did. The only reason he cared about this wedding business was because it mattered so much to her. It was why he’d left his job to dedicate his time and energy to making this work with her—for her. The idea to open Sutton Hall for weddings was the first spark of interest she’d shown in anything after what had gone down with that bastard Brad. This was her dream, and he was determined to see that dream come true.

And if Jillian Jones did anything to mess with it—with any of them—she’d answer to him.

* * *

JILLIAN HAD JUST stepped out of the bathroom adjoining her bedroom when she heard a knock on the door to the suite.

Moving to the door, she opened it. An incredibly handsome young man stood on the threshold, holding her bags. For a moment, Jillian was actually taken aback by how attractive he was. Dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, it was as if he’d stepped out of a magazine ad depicting the prototypical outdoorsman, with thick dark brown hair, deep blue eyes and chiseled features.

And yet, staring into his perfect face, she felt none of the impact she’d experienced just a short time earlier when taking in Adam Sutton’s entrance. Just the thought of the man sent a shiver trembling through her again.

As her eyes met the newcomer’s, she caught the gleam in his. Oh, yes, he was very good-looking. And he knew it.

“Hi, I’m Zack,” he said, flashing her a row of perfect, gleaming teeth. “I brought your bags.”

“Of course.” She stepped out of the doorway to allow him access to the room. “Thank you so much. I hope it wasn’t too much trouble.”

“Not at all.”

He walked past her and set the bags on the floor at the end of the bed, then turned back to face her. “There you go. Anything else I can do?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, if there is, you be sure to let me know.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. So what is it you do around here when you’re not helping women with their bags?”

“I’m one of the groundskeepers. Just started. My dad’s the main one, has been for as long as I can remember. He’s in charge of maintaining the property, especially the gardens on the east side.”

“So it’s kind of the family business?”



He wrinkled his nose, making it clear what he thought of that idea. “God, I hope not. I’m just doing it for the time being.”

“I take it you don’t enjoy it?”

“It’s all right. Pays the bills.” He grinned. “And it’s gotten better now that I get to meet some interesting people.”

She wondered for a moment if she was mistaking the flirtatious note she heard in his voice. It was possible he was only being friendly.

“Oh, I almost forgot.” He reached into the front pocket of his shirt and pulled out her keys. “I moved your car to the garage.”

“Thanks. And where is that?”

“Around the west side of the house. I can show you if you like.”

“That’s all right. I’m sure I don’t need to know right now.” At least she hoped. And if the time came she did need to get to her vehicle quickly, she’d find it herself.

She reached out to take the keys. He dropped them into her hand, his fingertips grazing her palm a little too long. Warily, she lifted her eyes to his. He winked, that slow, slight grin curling one corner of his mouth.

Nope, definitely not imagining things. It was all Jillian could do not to roll her eyes. As far as the man knew Jillian was an engaged woman here to get married, and he was flirting with her? Classy.

“Thanks again,” Jillian said, giving him the cue to leave.

“Sure thing. I’ll be seeing you around.” He walked to the door, an unmistakable swagger in his step.

Jillian barely had the door shut behind him before she gave in to the eye roll he so desperately deserved. Only then did the larger implications of his behavior occur to her.

A man with so few scruples he’d put the moves on a complete stranger he knew was getting married likely wasn’t someone to be trusted. She wondered if he’d made a move on Courtney. Jillian had no doubt Courtney wouldn’t have acted on it, no matter how good-looking she might have thought he was. She’d loved Eric. How would Zack have reacted to being turned down?



Somehow Jillian suspected she was going to have to find that out herself. She would have to keep an eye on him.

With a sigh, she turned back to put her bags away. This was such a strange place with an...interesting group of people working here. She could hardly wait to meet the rest of them.

* * *

“AND IF YOU see what I did with the frosting here, it’s another option that I think is quite lovely....”

Jillian had never thought she would get sick of looking at cakes. But then, she’d never seen Rosie Warren’s album of all the cakes she’d made.

Jillian nodded and made a sound of agreement in her throat to make the woman think she was listening. She really didn’t want to hear any more about cakes. At the moment she couldn’t imagine ever wanting to eat one again.



Instead, she did her best to study the woman without making it obvious she was doing so. The longtime cook at Sutton Hall, Rosie was a sturdy-looking woman who appeared to be in her late fifties or early sixties, with gray hair and a rounded face and figure that gave her a grandmotherly appearance. She seemed pleasant enough, but Jillian wasn’t getting much of a read on her personality, other than that she was exceedingly competent at her job. From the moment she’d sat down at the massive dining room table with Jillian and Meredith, she’d opened the album and talked about nothing but cakes.

When Rosie started to turn the page, Jillian quickly interjected. “This is all very impressive. You made all of these cakes just to have photographs of them?” She wasn’t exaggerating. The album contained photographs of at least four dozen fully decorated cakes, something Jillian couldn’t imagine her having on hand before Sutton Hall had been opened for weddings. For her to go to that much trouble was certainly impressive.

“Yep. Just like the professionals,” Rosie said with unmistakable pride.

“Although if you’d feel more comfortable hiring a professional baker, we’d understand,” Meredith said. “I do have the numbers of several in the area who come highly recommended.”

“I’m perfectly capable of baking and decorating a beautiful wedding cake,” Rosie interjected before Jillian could respond, her voice suddenly tight with anger. “I think my work speaks for itself.”

“It certainly does,” Jillian said. “I’ll leave the cake in your capable hands. I trust you’re more than up to it.”

Rosie nodded firmly. “Thank you. So why don’t you tell me what you have in mind when it comes to flavors, and I can prepare some samples for you to try.”

Jillian was saved from answering when a door across the table from them suddenly swung open. “Rosie? You around?”

Moments later, a man stepped through, coming to an abrupt stop as soon as he spotted them. “Oh. Sorry to interrupt.”

“It’s no trouble,” Meredith said. “Jillian, this is Rosie’s husband, Ed. I’m sure you’ll be seeing him around. He’s our handyman and all-around go-to guy for keeping this place up and running. Ed, this is Jillian Jones. She’s going to be getting married here.”

Ed Warren was a tall man with a stocky frame and gray hair that was balding on top. Appearing to be roughly the same age as his wife, he had an open, welcoming face, which quickly eased into a smile. “Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

“You, too,” Jillian said. “You take care of this whole house? That’s a big job for one man.”

His smile deepened. “It keeps me busy,” he acknowledged before turning to his wife. “Rosie? There any coffee?”

“There should be half a pot,” Rosie said with barely concealed irritation.

“There’s not,” Ed said patiently.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Rosie said, shoving away from the table. “I know there was. And of course you can’t make any more yourself.”

“You know you don’t like anybody messing around in your kitchen.”

“That’s because I know where everything goes,” Rosie retorted. Without a glance back at Jillian and Meredith, she rounded the end of the table and followed her husband, who ducked back through the doorway before her.

The room immediately felt quieter when they were gone. “I’m sorry about that,” Meredith said softly. “They can be a little...eccentric.”

“It’s fine,” Jillian assured her. “They’re part of the atmosphere of a place like this, an authentic staff of real people who are at home here, right?”

“I’m hoping people think so,” Meredith admitted with a smile.

“So you kept on all the original staff?”

“We did. There were only four of them, though. Grace, Rosie, Ed and Ray, the groundskeeper. Zack, who brought up your bags, is Ray’s son. Jacob Sutton was apparently a recluse in his later years, and he pretty much kept a skeleton crew on staff. They’ve all been here for so long it didn’t seem right to turn them out. Like you said, this is their home, and they’ve proven more than capable at their jobs. Of course we’ll hire as much staff as necessary to work the wedding. I already have a long list of people from town on call.”

“It sounds great. It’s amazing that you’re planning on doing so much with such a small regular staff, though.”

“This is only for the time being. We may hire more people on a permanent basis. We’re still evaluating how much more additional staff we’ll need based on...how the future looks.”

She glanced away, and Jillian understood her meaning. After what had happened to Courtney, the new wedding business wasn’t on the strongest footing. The future would depend on what happened with the next wedding.

Which isn’t going to happen, Jillian acknowledged with a trace of guilt.

She reminded herself she had no reason to feel guilty. As one of the owners, this woman was part of the cover-up of whatever had happened to Courtney, and might even be involved herself. Jillian couldn’t forget that.

“So tell me about your fiancé,” Meredith said brightly in a clear effort to change the subject. “I’d love to hear all about him.”

It was a question Jillian was prepared for. “Ryan’s an architect who works on projects all over the world. It’s one reason he’s as excited as I am to be married here. He’s fascinated by Sutton Hall. He couldn’t be more jealous that I get to see it first.”

“Do you have a picture of him? I’d love to see what he looks like.”

“Of course,” Jillian said, reaching for her bag. She’d figured she’d be expected to have pictures of her fiancé and the two of them together. It would only make sense that a prospective bride would have plenty of them and be eager to show off her groom. Pulling out her wallet, she withdrew the plastic photo holder and handed it to Meredith, who began flipping through it.

“Oh, he’s very handsome,” Meredith said. Though it hardly mattered, Jillian knew she was being honest. By any reasonable standards, Ryan was a very good-looking man. He was also conveniently out of the country at the moment, so if anyone tried reaching him to confirm her story, they’d have a hard time doing so. It was a good thing, too, since she didn’t want him finding out she was here any more than she wanted anyone here learning he wasn’t her fiancé. Ryan would kill her if he knew she’d come here on her own and wouldn’t hesitate to blow her cover.

Of course the downside of that was that no one knew she was here. Just in case anything happened, she’d written an email to several people she trusted and set it to be sent on a time delay if she didn’t reschedule it, which she planned to do every twenty-four hours. She also intended to add to the message with her thoughts and impressions of what she found here, letting them know about the investigation she was conducting and hopefully leaving relevant clues in case something did happen to her. With any luck, it wouldn’t come to that.

“Everything all right in here?”

The voice came from the main entrance to the room—loud, startling...and familiar.

Adam Sutton.

It was all she could do not to tense as adrenaline suddenly ricocheted through her body. A strange reaction. She tried to tell herself it was because he’d startled her, even as part of her deep down recognized it was more than that.

He was behind her. It wasn’t just that his voice had come from that direction. No, she immediately sensed his location, exactly where he was standing, mere feet away.

She recognized the feeling of that hard, steady gaze boring through her.

Then he was there, standing just behind them, positioned between her chair and Meredith’s. Keeping her expression carefully clear, she raised her head to look at him.

And met his eyes.

As she’d known he would, he was looking directly at her. A jolt went through her that she had to fight her hardest to keep from showing. It was exactly the reaction she hadn’t had when she’d first seen Zack Hopkins.

It was also ridiculous. She didn’t know this man. Everything about him said she shouldn’t trust him, let alone feel...anything else toward him.

“Of course,” Meredith said, finally answering his question. Her voice was tight—with nervousness? Something else? “Jillian was just showing me pictures of her fiancé.”



“Really?” Adam said with a slight arch of his brow. “I’d love to see them.”

Some kind of look Jillian couldn’t read passed between brother and sister before Meredith thrust the photo holder at him.

Jillian watched as Adam slowly went through the photos, examining each one closely, eyes narrowed to slits. “What does your fiancé do?”

“He’s an architect.”

“Ah,” he said in a tone that seemed to say he didn’t believe her. “How did the two of you meet?”

“At a party,” she said automatically. It was the truth. “I’m afraid I don’t have a more romantic story of our first meeting than that.”

“All that matters is that you did meet,” Meredith assured her.

When Adam reached the last photograph, he finally raised those dark eyes to her, an indecipherable look in them.

“You make a very attractive couple,” he said blandly, reaching out to hand the photos back to her. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

He continued to stare at her for a long moment before finally nodding, giving the table a cursory glance, a tight, unconvincing smile on his lips. “I’ll let you ladies get back to business. Sorry to interrupt.”

“Not a problem,” Meredith said breezily, though again Jillian caught the look she shot him.

Curious, Jillian thought. There was so much going on beneath the surface she didn’t know about around here. She had to wonder how much of it was relevant to her purposes. She was going to have to figure it out—and soon.

“Now then,” Meredith said. “Why don’t we talk about flowers?”

Jillian couldn’t imagine anything she wanted to do less at the moment. Pasting on a smile, she made herself nod.

Keeping her attention on Meredith, Jillian turned away from Adam.

It didn’t matter. She could still feel him there.

She sensed him begin to depart, relief piercing the tension gripping her insides.

Listening with half an ear to Meredith, she waited for the feeling to dissipate completely.

It didn’t. Instead, fresh awareness prickled the back of her neck. And she knew.

He was watching her.

The tension holding her clenched tighter. A strange mix of emotions churned in her belly, twisting and changing into each other, making it hard to recognize them all. Wariness. Nervousness.

Excitement.

The last one made no sense, but she had no doubt it was the one that had her heart beating the hardest.

Even after he’d finally left, it took a while for the feeling to fade completely.

He was suspicious of her. She was convinced of that now. It was the only thing that made sense, the only possible reason for his unrelenting focus. There was none of Zack Hopkins’s flirtatiousness in his intense scrutiny. Which was ironic considering the effect it seemed to be having on her.

She was going to have to be careful around him. Or better yet, avoid him entirely. The man was a threat to her mission, and quite possibly, her life. She couldn’t forget that.

No matter how many times she had to remind herself.

* * *

THIS ONE WAS different than the last. More reserved. Not as overly excited about the wedding plans and her upcoming nuptials.

Only time would tell just how different from the last one she truly was.

The last bride to come here, for all her excitement about the wedding preparations, hadn’t been serious about what the commitment of her impending nuptials truly meant. At a time when she should have been thinking about nothing but her wedding and getting ready for married life, she’d been looking at a man who wasn’t her fiancé in a way she had no business doing so when she was engaged to be married.

She hadn’t been fit to be a bride, hadn’t deserved all those wonderful plans she’d made. Not at all.

This new one would have to be watched as well.