The Perfect Bride
Author:Kerry Connor

Chapter Three

Jillian waited until two in the morning before making her move.

She’d taken a nap after dinner, partly because the exhaustion of traveling here and pretending to be something she wasn’t, surrounded by people she didn’t trust, had gotten to her, partly because there was nothing else for her to do. She needed everyone else in Sutton Hall to be in bed and out of her way, needed the place to herself so she could do what she had to.

She needed to see the tower bedroom, the one where Courtney had been staying.

The one with the balcony she’d fallen from.

The final few hours before Jillian thought it would be safe to proceed passed with agonizing slowness. She made notes of her first impressions of everyone she’d met since her arrival. She considered who might have wanted to hurt Courtney, and why.

She thought about Adam Sutton, with his darkly handsome looks and solemn stares that seemed to see right through her, and pondered what exactly was lurking beneath that enigmatic face....

Finally it was time.

She hadn’t heard a sound in hours. Hopefully that meant the rest of the household was tucked tightly in their beds.

Expecting to have to work in the dark of night, she’d packed a flashlight for this very moment. Moving to the door, she slowly eased it open and peered out into the darkness.

Silence lay heavily over Sutton Hall. At least over the part nearest to where she was. The place was so big a brass band could be playing in the other wing and she probably wouldn’t hear it from here.

She couldn’t see anything, either, the darkness as thick as the quiet. Gripping the flashlight tightly, she slipped into the hallway, carefully closing the door behind her.

She stood there, her back to it, and stared into the blackness, willing her eyes to adjust. She didn’t want to turn on the flashlight just yet, in case anyone was nearby.

She knew where she was heading. She’d read the police report, studied maps of Sutton Hall. She knew where the tower bedroom was. Now it was just a matter of getting there.

The stairs to the next floor weren’t far from her room. Finally, she was able to detect enough in the darkness to make her way there. She moved quickly on the balls of her feet, her steps silent on the plush carpet. Listening carefully for the slightest sound, she hurried up the stairs to the third floor.

Another vast, empty corridor completely devoid of lights, exactly like the one she’d just left, faced her. She took a few steps into the hallway, enough to be out of view from the stairs, and finally turned on the flashlight.

The thin beam created by the tool did little to calm her nerves. Somehow the house was more unsettling when viewed through that pale light than it had seemed in the dark. The beam didn’t reach far, seeming to fade out only a few feet in front of her. Everything beyond it was hazy and instinct. It was an eerie feeling, as though anything could be lurking just out of its reach, or at its edges, hidden just out of view.

She turned left, her tension building the closer she came to her destination. She kept her mouth closed and breathed through her nose, trying to keep her breathing steady when her heart seemed to be pounding out of control. Every few steps, she glanced back, sending the beam of the flashlight shooting behind her, just in case anyone was there, sneaking up on her....

Then there it was. The corridor came to an abrupt end. Just before it was a final door on the right.

The door to the tower bedroom.

Focusing her light on the doorknob, she eased her way toward it.

When she was finally there, she reached a trembling hand out to grasp the knob. Taking a deep breath, she turned it.

It twisted easily, the latch giving way and releasing the door with a barely audible click.

Jillian froze, her body tensing in surprise. Frankly, she’d half expected it to be locked and thought she’d have to try to pick it. It would have made sense that they’d want to keep people from going into this room. Or maybe the Suttons had trusted that no one would come here.

Foolish of them.

Good for her.

Not about to waste any more time, she gently pushed the knob inward, moving slowly in case the hinges made any noise. She needn’t have worried. The door swung open silently, gradually revealing the space within.

The room wasn’t completely dark. Faint moonlight poured in from a long window on the far side of the space.

No, she realized, going still. Not a window. A door. Maybe a door to a balcony?

Swallowing hard, she stepped inside, easing the door shut behind her. Only when she heard the latch fasten did she reach over and fumble for the light switch on the wall. Her skin crawling at being in this room, with its long shadows and dark spaces, she struggled to find the switch, her heart beating faster each moment her fingers came away empty.

Her fingertips finally made contact. She instantly flipped the switch, flooding the room with blessed light.

Maybe too much? she wondered, imagining the light pouring out through the windows and into the night. Would it be visible from any of the other windows on one of the sides of the mansion that came together to form this tower?

Trying to visualize the layout of the house, she decided it was unlikely. Not to mention that, now that she was here, she didn’t really feel like wandering around in the dark with only her flashlight to guide her. Not here. Not in this room.

Stepping forward, she surveyed the space. When she’d heard the room had had a balcony, she’d wondered why Courtney hadn’t asked for another one given her fear of heights. Now that she was here, she could understand why. Jillian had thought the room she’d been put in had been impressive, but this one was magnificent, bigger and more extravagant, from the massive bed that could easily fit a half-dozen people to the stone fireplace on one wall that was practically the size of a full room itself. The space was warm and comfortable despite its size. The exit to the balcony was such a minor part of the room it would be easy enough to forget it was there at all.

Inevitably, though, Jillian’s eyes found the doors, closed tightly against the night. She studied them from across the room, suddenly wary. This was it. A month ago Courtney had stood in this room, and then she’d found herself out there, and then—

“Looking for something?”

The voice came out of nowhere, shocking in the silence. Her heart leaping into her throat, she whirled around, automatically raising the flashlight to defend herself—

Adam Sutton stood just inside the door, arms folded over his chest, his expression as dark as the blackness that yawned beyond the open doorway.

She hadn’t even heard the door open. The fact that he was standing there in that pose, obviously having been there for at least a few moments, told her he’d been watching her. And she wondered if he’d waited to speak until a moment that would startle her most.

That didn’t mean she was going to be meek and defensive, even if she was somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be. Slowly lowering the flashlight, she met his gaze head-on. “This is the room, isn’t it? The one where the last bride stayed?”

“The one she fell to her death from?” he said, arching a brow. “I think you know full well that it is. The only real question is what you’re doing here.”

“You can’t blame me for being curious.”

“Can’t I?” He stepped forward, arms dropping to his sides, moving toward her one slow step at a time, with the leonine grace of a predator gradually approaching its prey.

She didn’t allow herself to take a step back, to retreat, to move at all. Even as her skin began to tingle the closer he came, with wariness, with unease...with something else that made her heart beat faster most of all.

He finally stopped a few feet away, not enough that he was really invading her space, but enough that he might as well have been. He towered over her, peering down into her eyes, the lines of his handsome face hard and cold. His presence was overwhelming, a palpable thing she felt too strongly. Her whole body seemed to buzz with awareness of it, of him. It was all she could do not to swallow hard.

Unsettled by the strange emotions churning inside her, she managed to hold her ground and found her voice. “If you wanted to keep people out, you should have locked the door.”

“I did,” he said, surprising her. “Right after the police were done with the room.”

Jillian frowned, not understanding. “But it was unlocked.”

He smiled, the slow curving of his lips sending a shiver of warning up her spine. “I unlocked it this evening and set a sensor to inform me if anyone opened the door. Just in case someone decided to come up here.”

It couldn’t have been clearer who that “someone” was. A trap, she thought. He’d set it specifically for her and she’d walked right into it. The only question was—

“Why? Why go to all that trouble?”

“Because I wanted to know just how much trouble you are.”

“Indulging a little basic human curiosity is hardly causing trouble.”

“If that’s all you were doing,” he said pointedly. “What are you really doing here, Ms. Jones?”

“I’m here to get married,” she answered automatically.

“Are you?”

“If not, I’ve paid a very large deposit for no reason.”

“Or for a different reason than the one you’re claiming.”

“And what would that be?”

He simply looked at her for a long moment, his eyes peering, unblinking, into hers. “You tell me.”

“I have no idea. You seem to be the one with the active imagination. Maybe you should tell me what you want me to say.”

He continued studying her with that cold, unwavering stare. With some effort, she managed to hold his gaze, refusing to back down or let the slightest weakness show.

His unyielding gaze slowly shifted, stroking over her face. Her skin burned wherever his eyes touched her, as they trailed over her nose, her cheeks, finally reaching her lips. She waited for them to move away. They didn’t, lingering on her mouth, with an intensity of focus that sent a sudden rush of heat flooding through her.

Without warning, he abruptly turned away and stalked across the room.

Straight to the doors to the balcony.

Unease shooting through her, she watched as he grabbed the handles and pushed the doors open. Night wind blasted through the fresh gap between them, blowing through his hair and molding his clothes tightly against the hard lines of his body.

It took only seconds for the cold air to reach her. She barely noticed it, her attention fixed on the balcony. She couldn’t really see it. The light flooding the room somehow didn’t manage to reach far past the doors.

Staring at the endless emptiness beyond the open doors, she shivered, the reaction having nothing to do with the wind.

One thing she knew for sure, there was no way Courtney would have been out on that balcony at night.

Turning back to her, he gestured to the doors as though presenting the opening to her. “All right, Ms. Jones. You wanted to see it. Come take a look.”

She remained where she was. He was right—it was what she’d come here for. But alone with this man, she suddenly didn’t want to be anywhere near that balcony.

She turned her focus to him. He watched her through hooded eyes, the challenge clear in them.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to scare me.”

“I’m only giving you what you said you wanted. Or were you lying about that?”

“You know, for someone who’s supposedly running a business here, you’re not exactly welcoming to paying customers. Aren’t you worried I’ll decide to leave?”

“No,” he said flatly. “Because I don’t think you will. I don’t think there’s anything I can say that could get you to leave.”

“You’re right, of course. If the idea of having my wedding in a place where another bride recently died doesn’t scare me, I’m certainly not going to be scared off by you. But that’s what you want, isn’t it? For me to leave?”

“If you’re lying about why you’re here, then yes.”

“Which you think I am. This is your property. If you want me to leave so badly, why don’t you just kick me out?”

“Meredith wants you here. She believes you.”

“It’s nice to know paranoid fantasies don’t run in the family.”

Jillian wouldn’t have thought it possible, but his expression actually darkened further. “This business means a great deal to my sister. I have no intention of letting her be hurt by someone who’s here under false pretenses and wasting her time.”

“Wouldn’t it hurt her if I left? Another canceled wedding wouldn’t be a good thing, even if the end result is less disturbing.”

“It would be better than having her hurt by you turning out to be something you’re not. So let’s have it, Ms. Jones. Who are you?”

A pang of guilt welled inside her, just for a moment, before she ruthlessly pushed it back down. Because while Meredith Sutton might be hurt, Courtney definitely had been, and she’d lost a great deal more than a business.

“Just a woman who wants to get married in a beautiful castle,” she said simply, without blinking. “Isn’t that every little girl’s dream?”

A faint smile played across his lips. “So they say.”

Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to get away. From this room, with its connection to Courtney’s death. From that balcony, which seemed infinitely dangerous.

From this man, with his cool stare that left her feeling anything but cold.

She’d had enough of this game, and wasn’t really up for fending off any more accusations—or dealing with the strange way he had of throwing her off-balance, in more ways than one.

Refusing to let him see her nerves, she squared her shoulders and held his gaze steadily. “I think I should be getting back to bed.”

He simply stared at her with those bottomless, unreadable eyes. “Yes,” he said coolly. “You should.”

Raising her chin, she turned and headed for the exit.

She’d nearly reached the door and made her escape, relief beginning to swell in her chest, when he spoke again.

“Good night, Ms. Jones,” he said in that faintly mocking tone. “Sleep tight.”

She didn’t bother looking back. She kept moving until she slipped through the open doorway, the sound of his voice sliding over her skin and nearly making her shudder, chasing her back into the darkness.