The Perfect Bride
Author:Kerry Connor

Chapter Four

After a few restless hours of tossing and turning, Jillian rose early. Her encounter with Adam Sutton had kept her up most of the night and plagued her dreams during the rest of it.

She couldn’t get the image of his face out of her mind, couldn’t stop trying to read whatever he’d been thinking behind that stony expression. Were his motives exactly as he’d said, nothing more than wanting to protect his sister and the business they were trying to build here from someone he thought was a liar? It was understandable, but was there more to it? Was there another reason he didn’t want anyone poking around the circumstances of Courtney’s death, because he knew it hadn’t been an accident?

Worst of all, that wasn’t the most disturbing part, or what kept her up most of the night.

Because when she’d been facing Adam Sutton’s dangerous expression, both last night and in her dreams, the emotion that had her heart racing wildly hadn’t been fear.

Not even close.

Irritated, she pushed the covers aside and climbed from the bed. His behavior made it clear she couldn’t trust him. Even if he hadn’t been threatening her, the man was still a threat to her mission here, a big obstacle keeping her from learning the truth about what happened to Courtney. Her reaction to the man made no sense. Not to mention it was disloyal to Courtney. She had no business feeling anything toward him as long as he was involved in this.

Showering and dressing quickly, she left the room in search of coffee. She didn’t spot a single person as she made her way downstairs, passing through the cavernous front hall and into the expansive dining room. She only briefly hesitated before pushing through the swinging door into the kitchen. As she’d proven last night, as long as she was here she wasn’t going to be averse to going places she maybe wasn’t supposed to be. It might be the only way she was going to find anything out.

She just had to hope Adam Sutton wouldn’t be lying in wait, she thought as a tremor quaked through her.

He wasn’t. The only person in sight was Rosie, all alone in the massive room, bustling around behind the main counter. She didn’t notice Jillian’s entrance. Jillian opened her mouth to announce her presence, only to decide against it, taking advantage of the other woman’s lack of awareness to study her.

Rosie kept in almost constant motion, checking whatever she had baking in the oven, tending to the meat frying on the stove, laying out her work on trays she had lined up on the counter. A slight smile played on her lips and she was humming as she worked, the very picture of contentment. She was clearly in her domain here and took obvious pleasure in her work. If Jillian hadn’t already been hungry, the smells Rosie was creating would have changed that fast.

Rosie suddenly glanced up, her gaze colliding with Jillian’s, eyes flaring wide in surprise.

“Oh!” she said, jolting upright. “I didn’t see you there.”

“I’m sorry,” Jillian said, moving forward into the room. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

The woman fluttered a hand as she started to turn back to the oven. “No harm, no foul. I was so busy with what I’m doing I probably wouldn’t have noticed if an army came marching through here.”

Jillian stepped up to the counter. “Whatever it is you’re working on, it smells wonderful.”

Rosie’s smile deepened. “It’s nice to have people in the house again to cook for. When Mr. Sutton—Mr. Jacob Sutton, that is—was still here, he didn’t have guests too often, so there wasn’t much reason to cook a large meal. It was just him and Grace, and me and Ed. Not much point cooking a big meal for four people. It’s good to know I haven’t forgotten how to do it.”

“From the looks of things, you certainly haven’t,” Jillian said, eyeing the row of croissants Rosie had lying on a tray on the counter. “Where did you learn to cook like this?”

“Oh, my mother taught me. I asked her to when I was just a girl. I always dreamed of getting married and being a good wife. I know that’s not fashionable to say these days, but it’s true. I wanted a husband and children and to take care of my family. That was my dream.”

“And then you met Ed.”

Rosie’s smile tightened, the enthusiasm noticeably dimming from her expression. “Yes. Ed.”

Curious about the woman’s reaction to the mention of her husband, Jillian studied her closely. “Do you have children?”

“I’m afraid not,” Rosie said, a wistful note in her voice. “It wasn’t meant to be.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. We don’t always get what we want. Sometimes we have to make do with what we have.”

“At least you still get to share your gifts,” Jillian pointed out.

The woman instantly brightened. “That’s true.”

“You must have been excited when Adam and Meredith decided to open Sutton Hall for weddings.”

“Oh, of course. Who doesn’t love a wedding?”

“Did you get to work much with the last bride who came here?”

Rosie’s expression didn’t change, but Jillian didn’t miss the beat of hesitation before she answered. “A little bit.”

“What was she like?” Jillian asked.

There was another slight pause before Rosie said, “She was very excited about her wedding.” She quickly turned away toward the stove, putting her back to Jillian.

It was a vague answer that didn’t reveal anything about Rosie’s true thoughts about Courtney. Though she was doing her best to cover it, Rosie clearly wasn’t comfortable with the subject. It was understandable given what had happened, but Jillian was too skeptical not to wonder if there was more to the woman’s reticence.

Before she could press the woman further, a door leading outside suddenly opened. Moments later, Ed stepped into the room. He came to an abrupt stop as soon as he saw them, his eyes shifting between Jillian and Rosie in surprise.

“Morning,” he said.

“Good morning,” Jillian returned.

“Well, don’t just stand there with the door open,” Rosie said sharply. “Come in already, would you?”

“That’s what I’m doing,” Ed said patiently. He stepped over the threshold and closed the door behind himself. “You don’t have to tear my head off.”

“I wouldn’t have to if you’d act like a civilized person.”

“You don’t need to tell me how to act.”

“It seems to me that I do.”

Jillian listened to the exchange with growing discomfort. Every word that came out of Rosie’s mouth was harsh and cutting. Ed didn’t even fight back, his tone easygoing, his smile never wavering.

Then Rosie turned around and Jillian caught a glimpse of the look that entered Ed’s eyes as he stared at his wife’s back. The hardness, the utter coldness in his stare as he watched her, shocked Jillian to the core, sending a tremor of unease through her. Evidently the man wasn’t nearly as indifferent to his wife’s barbs as he seemed.

His gaze suddenly shifted to Jillian. As soon as he saw she was looking at him, he quickly lowered his eyes to the table.

Eager to lighten the tension that had built in the room, Jillian interjected, “Rosie was just telling me how her mother taught her how to cook.”

Ed raised his eyes back to her face. “You might want to be careful. Rosie’ll talk your ear off if you let her.”

The words were light, his easy smile firmly in place. But the look in his eyes was dead serious, as though the warning was more than a simple joke and one she should heed.

Jillian wasn’t sure what the undercurrents between the couple meant. She only knew the room suddenly felt unbearably claustrophobic with all the tension—unspoken and otherwise—in the room.

“You know, I think I could use some fresh air,” Jillian said, pushing to her feet. “I’ll see you later.”

Rosie quickly turned from the stove. “Breakfast is almost ready,” she said sternly.

“I usually don’t eat much in the morning,” Jillian lied. “I’ll grab something later.” Ignoring Rosie’s disapproving frown, Jillian gave her a little wave and pushed through the swinging door into the dining room before the cook could say anything.

Almost as soon as the door was at her back, Jillian relaxed slightly, some of the tension instantly easing from her shoulders.

She was midway through the foyer when she heard the clack of heels on the marble floors approaching from the other side. Bracing herself, she watched as Grace stepped into the space moments later.

The woman instantly spotted her, acknowledging her with a nod. “Good morning, Ms. Jones.”

“Morning, Grace. And please, it’s Jillian, remember?”

“Very well,” Grace said with just as much formalness.

“I thought I’d go out and explore the grounds a bit, try to get a feel for the property.”

The corners of the woman’s mouth turned down slightly. “Perhaps you should wait for Ms. Sutton to come down, or Mr. Sutton.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Jillian said breezily, never hesitating on her way to the door. “I’m sure I can find my way around.”

Jillian fully expected the woman to object further, but Grace didn’t say another word. Moments later, Jillian pushed through the door and stepped outside.

A sigh automatically eased from her lungs. Stopping on the front stoop, she tilted her head back and closed her eyes, breathing in the fresh air. It was a beautiful spring day, crisp and clear, the sun warm on her face. More important, after nearly a day inside Sutton Hall, it felt good to be out in the open again. No, more than that, it was a relief not to be surrounded by stone walls, no matter how spacious the areas between them.

Finally opening her eyes, she turned left, once again knowing where she was heading from her study of the property maps. The gardens were on the east side of the building.

It took her only a few minutes to reach them, an explosion of greenery bursting with spring meeting her eyes. She could tell immediately the gardens were vast, the greenery extending far beyond what she could see.

An arched gable marked the entrance to them. Jillian stopped in front of it but didn’t step inside. The gardens weren’t what she was interested in.

Turning, she looked down along the side of the mansion to the rear, and what wasn’t visible from the front.

And there it was.

The tower balcony.

Her heart jumped, seemingly as high as the balcony itself. It looked so insubstantial from this vantage point, a mere speck barely clinging to the wall, as though a mere breeze could sweep it from the building.

No, she thought, the certainty hardening in her gut and inspiring fresh anger. There was no way Courtney would have been out there. Just the idea of it was almost as inconceivable as the thought of her...

Plummeting from it.

“Well, hello there.”

Jillian recognized the low, insinuating voice behind her before she saw the speaker. The wheedling tone had her skin crawling, but Jillian didn’t let it show on her expression, bracing herself as she turned to face him.

As expected, Zack Hopkins stood a few feet away, leaning on the handle of a shovel he balanced between his hands. His gaze raked over her leisurely from head to toe, sending her skin crawling.

“Good morning,” she said politely.

“You’re up early,” he noted.

“Yes, well, there’s a lot to do. I wanted to get a chance to look around a bit, become more familiar with the grounds.”

“I’d be happy to show you around, if you like.”

“That’s all right. I don’t want to take you away from your work.”

“Eh, it’s nothing that can’t wait. I think I’d have a lot more fun keeping you company.”

The innuendo was more than clear, and she almost shook her head. “Are you flirting with me?” she asked, unable to hide her disbelief.

“Can you blame me?”

“I think I can. You do know I’m engaged to be married.”

Shrugging one shoulder carelessly, he gave her what she suspected was intended to be a devastating grin. Which it still sort of was, she had to admit in spite of everything. Too bad the guy’s overall sleaze factor severely outweighed his charm. “That means you’re not married yet.”

“I still made a commitment. You don’t have any respect for that?”

His grin turned sardonic. “Commitments mean different things to different people. Some women don’t take them as seriously as others.”

Suspicion prickled the back of her neck. “Are you speaking from experience?”

“Seems to fit most women I’ve met.”

“What about your mother?”

His expression hardened slightly. “My mother took off when I was a kid.”

“I’m sorry. That must have been hard for you.”

He shrugged again, the gesture seeming a little forced. “It is what it is. No reason for her to stick around if she didn’t want to. Maybe she had the right idea. Take things too seriously, it’ll drive you crazy. I mean, look at Old Man Sutton.”

All of Jillian’s instincts instantly went on alert. “What about him?”

Grimacing, Zack brushed off the comment with a wave of his hand. “Nothing,” he muttered.

“Zack!” a male voice suddenly rang out sharply, causing the young man to stiffen.

Jillian looked past him to see an older man walking toward them. In his late fifties or early sixties, he was tall and broad-shouldered, with brown hair streaked with gray. His face was heavily lined with age and what she suspected were many years of working in the sun. His features settled into a heavy frown.

“Don’t you have work you should be doing?” the man said before he reached them.

“Yes, Dad,” Zack said. His posture tight with resentment, he turned away from Jillian without another word, skulking off into the gardens.

Jillian turned her attention to the newcomer. “You must be Ray,” she said, remembering what Meredith had told her yesterday. “I’m Jillian.”

“I know who you are,” he said, his tone conveying he wasn’t overly impressed with that knowledge. “I’m sorry if he was bothering you.”

“Not at all,” Jillian said diplomatically. “He was just being...friendly.”

The man grunted. “Yeah, he’s real good at being friendly. I’ll make sure he stays out of your way.”

“It must be nice having your son working with you,” she said quickly when he started to turn away, not wanting to lose him just yet.

“It’s a good way to keep an eye on him,” Ray said.

“Does he need someone to keep an eye on him?” she asked curiously.

He gave her a head-to-toe once-over, as his son had, but there was no interest in his gaze. “Most people do,” he said vaguely.

“What about Mr. Sutton, the previous owner?”

“What do you mean?”

“Zack was telling me a little about him. Made it sound like he might have gone a little...crazy?”

The man’s mouth tightened into a hard, unyielding line. “The boy talks too much.”

Before she could say another word, he put his back to her and stalked into the gardens, quickly vanishing behind the hedge.

She could chase after him and ask him to show her the gardens in hopes of drawing out the conversation, but somehow she doubted running after him like that was going to make him any more talkative. She was going to have to find another approach to get him to open up to her, even a little, if that was even possible.

Instead, she drew in a deep breath of the warm morning air, tilting her head back to feel the sun on her face again. It was still bright out, the sky clear and blue, but Jillian suddenly felt inexplicably colder.

She needed answers, and if no one at Sutton Hall was willing to tell her what she needed to know, she’d have to go outside to get them.

And as she glanced up at the balcony hanging far in the sky, getting away from Sutton Hall for a little while didn’t seem like such a bad idea.