The Perfect Bride
Author:Kerry Connor

Chapter Six

They rode in silence for a few minutes, the quiet lying thick and heavy between them. Adam did his best to keep his eyes on the road and off the maddening woman beside him.

Of course her car would have to break down just before he came along—if that was what had even happened. For all he knew he’d simply caught her when she was up to something out there and she’d used the breakdown as an excuse. He wouldn’t put it past her.

Swallowing a sigh, he grimaced. Damn. The woman had him so turned around he barely knew which way was up.

Jillian cleared her throat gently, an obvious prelude to speaking, and he braced himself. “I didn’t know you’d gone into town,” she said mildly, though he thought he almost detected a hint of accusation in the words.

“No reason you should. I left after you did.”

“What took you into town?”

“Just some errands. What about you?”

She hesitated for a moment before saying, “I stopped by the library to see what I could learn about Sutton Hall.”

He fought the urge to frown. On the one hand it would make sense that she’d be interested in learning more about the place she intended to hold her wedding. On the other, someone with less up-front motives would probably do the same. The fact that she’d chosen to go into town to do her digging instead of asking people at Sutton Hall only raised his suspicions. “You didn’t need to go into town for that. You could have asked anyone at the house. I’m sure they would have been happy to tell you anything you wanted to know.”

“I’m so not sure about that. Other than Meredith, no one at Sutton Hall seems that talkative, and the place is still new to her, too.”

“I hope no one’s made you feel unwelcome,” he said automatically, unable to keep a hint of dryness from the words.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her turn her head and look directly at him. “Do you?”

“We want every bride who comes to Sutton Hall to have a good experience for her special day,” he said, pointedly emphasizing the relevant word.

“Or at least a better one than the first bride to come here?”

At the thought of Courtney Miller and what had happened to her, everything inside him went cold. “None of us want anything like that to happen ever again.”

“Did you know Jacob Sutton used to sit out on the balcony overlooking the road leading up the mountain and just stare for hours, like he was still waiting for his wife to return?”

“No, I didn’t know that,” he said, already guessing where she was going with this.

“That’s the same balcony that woman fell from, isn’t it?”

As if she didn’t already know. “Yes.”

“It’s kind of a strange coincidence.”

“Not really. That balcony has the best view in the house. That’s why Meredith chose that room for her. It’s only understandable he would have chosen to sit there as well.”

“I guess so,” she said vaguely.

“It’s just as much of a coincidence as your car breaking down on the same road his wife’s went off of,” he pointed out.

Adam sensed her tense slightly. “Is that where it happened?” she asked faintly.

“Not at that particular spot, I’m sure. It’s not steep enough there for her car to sustain much damage if it went into the ditch. It was probably farther up the road, closer to where we are now.”

She turned her head and peered out the window at her side, though it was unlikely she could see anything in the darkness. “How far are we from the house?”

“About two miles,” he said. “You would have had quite a walk ahead of you. An even longer one if you’d decided to head back toward town. You’re lucky I came along when I did.”

“Hmm. Lucky,” she said, as though she had reason to doubt that.

Of course, given their previous encounter, she might have reason not to want to spend too much time around him. But was it because she knew he was on to her, or because he’d been rude to her?

She ran her hand idly over the leather lining along the inside of the door. “By the way, nice car.”

“It gets the job done.”

“I’d say it does a lot better than that. Something like this couldn’t have been cheap.”

“Are you asking how much I paid for it?” he asked, amused by her audacity in spite of himself.

“No,” she said with a faint smile. “I’m just guessing it means you were successful at whatever you did before you decided to start this wedding business at Sutton Hall.”

“I was.”

She turned that assessing gaze on him. He didn’t even have to look directly at her to know it. He could feel it. “Yet you gave it up to open a wedding business in Vermont.”

“It was important to Meredith.” Adam shot her a look. “It is important to her. That’s something I take very seriously. And I don’t appreciate anyone wasting her time.”

He might have expected her to proclaim the purity of her intentions here once again. She didn’t, surveying him gravely with those startling green eyes.

“Your sister must mean a lot to you,” she said.

“She does,” he said firmly. “Remember that.”

“Were the two of you always close?” she asked blandly, as if he hadn’t spoken.

“Always,” he confirmed. “I was six when Meredith was born. Our father worked a lot and wasn’t around much, and our mother wasn’t exactly the nurturing type, so I always watched out for her. All we really had was each other.” Until she’d needed him most, he acknowledged bitterly. He hadn’t been there for her then.

“She’s lucky to have you,” Jillian said softly.

The sentiment sounded genuine, but hearing it come from her, knowing that he couldn’t really trust a word she said, sent a fresh wave of anger through him. “What about your family?” he challenged. “Why aren’t they here with you?”

“I don’t have any.”

He didn’t know if he should believe her. It could be a lie, like he suspected so many other things were that she’d told him, a ploy for his sympathy, to get him to back off. But something in the simple way she said it—without hesitation, without emotion—made him think she was telling the truth. “I’m sorry,” he said, and was surprised to find he meant it.

“It’s all right. I’ve had a long time to get used to it.”

“Well, you won’t have to be used to it much longer. Once you’re married, you and your husband will be your own family.”

“That’s true.”

I don’t believe it is, he was tempted to reply, but it was clear she wasn’t going to budge from that particular story anytime soon.

“You know, the other bride, Courtney Miller, didn’t have any family, either. That was one reason she was here alone. The wedding was just going to be her, her groom and some of their closest friends. Just like you.”

“I didn’t know that,” Jillian said after a beat, not slowly enough for him to tell if she was lying.

“Interesting coincidence.”

“There seem to be a lot of those going around,” she noted wryly. “It makes sense, though. It’s a lot easier to have a wedding in an out-of-the-way place with a small wedding party than it would be when you have a lot of people who’d have to travel. And when you don’t have a lot of family, it’s only natural you’d want to do something extra special for the wedding.” She paused again. “At least that’s how I thought about it.”

Adam almost shook his head. She had an explanation for everything, didn’t she?

They fell back into silence. Adam did his best to focus on the road, but no matter how hard he tried, he found his gaze kept drifting back to her, unerringly drawn by the sight of her out of the corner of his eye.

He didn’t know what it was about her that he found so compelling. She was beautiful, but it wasn’t as though he hadn’t met plenty of beautiful women in his lifetime. She was strong, but he’d encountered any number of strong women in the business world and gone toe-to-toe with them, and none of them had captured his attention like this. She was smart and quick-witted and fearless, all qualities shared by plenty of other people. But he’d never met the unique combination of those particular qualities that was Jillian Jones, and that made all the difference. And no matter how much he knew he should look away, he simply couldn’t.

The appearance of lights up ahead provided a welcome distraction. Adam looked at the road to see they’d finally arrived back at Sutton Hall, the building looming in front of them, lights blazing from its many windows.

He almost sighed, a sense of contentment falling over him. A year ago when he’d first seen it, he never would have imagined a place this massive and imposing could feel like home. Yet it did, the feeling stronger than ever each time he found his way back to it.

He circled the driveway and pulled up directly in front of the house. By the time he got out and rounded the vehicle to her side, Jillian was already climbing out.

Closing the door, she turned to face him. “Thank you for the ride.”

“You’re welcome,” he said. “You should call the rental company about your car.”

“I will.”

At the reminder of her vehicle, a flicker of worry passed over her features, and she looked vulnerable for a moment. He’d never seen her look that way before. Even when he’d confronted her last night in the tower bedroom and she’d stood there, dwarfed by the size of the room around her, the wind blowing against her, she hadn’t seemed vulnerable. She’d exuded confidence. She didn’t now.

He didn’t like it. It looked wrong on her. The urge was there to reach out and say something comforting, to do what he could to erase that look from her eyes.

Which was foolish, of course. He managed to hold himself in check. Having her worried was exactly what he should want to get her to call off this lie he was convinced she was perpetuating.

He took a step toward her, forcing her to tilt her head back slightly to look up at him, and hardened his tone. “About what I said before... I wasn’t kidding. Meredith is the only family I have in this world. I’m not going to let anyone hurt her. So if you are wasting her time or do anything to cause her grief, you will answer for it. I promise you that.”

If he’d hoped to intimidate her, he saw immediately that he’d failed. The fire in her eyes sparked back to life. Her expression smoothed, and she raised her head with a stubborn jut of her chin.

He knew he should consider her defiance a bad sign, an indication she wasn’t going to back down. But damn if it didn’t look good on her.

“Just because I don’t have any family doesn’t mean I don’t understand what it means to be willing to do anything for the people I care about.”

Something in the words, in the way she said them, struck an uneasy chord inside him. “So we understand each other.”

“Absolutely,” she shot back.

There didn’t seem to be anything left to say. He waited for her to turn on her heel and storm into the house in a huff.

She didn’t. She stood there, glaring up at him, eyes spitting fury. The moment went on. And he realized she didn’t want to be the first to break or back down any more than he did.

The insight only stoked his own anger, and it was all he could do not to growl at her. The reaction startled him. He never came close to losing control of his emotions like that. But there was something about this woman... She really wouldn’t give in the slightest. Not when it came to the truth. Not when it came to leaving here. Not even when it came to staring him down.

They stood there, gazes locked, the tension so thick he could almost feel it crackling in the air between them. Neither of them had moved. There was a little more than a foot between them, the same amount of space since he’d taken that step forward, but the distance seemed to shrink the longer they stood there, as though they were slowly drawing together.

The light from the house poured down over her face, illuminating every flawless line and beautiful feature, so much that she almost seemed to glow. Yet it was those blazing green eyes that drew him, radiating every ounce of fire she had burning inside, every inch of determination, every bit of passion....

Suddenly anger wasn’t the only thing he was feeling, and the emotion that had been slowly building deep inside finally burst forth.

Want. Pure, raw want.

There must have been a change in his gaze. He saw the instant she recognized it, her eyes flaring the tiniest bit. With surprise. With awareness.

Yet still she didn’t move away. Still she stared into his eyes, hard and unblinking.

And the emotion radiating from her wasn’t anger, either.

A purely masculine sense of triumph surged from deep in his gut as it registered.

No, not just anger.

It had been too long since he’d been with a woman. The past year he’d been so consumed with this place, not to mention fairly isolated up here trying to get it into shape, that he hadn’t really had the time or the opportunity to seek out female company. That had to be it. This was just the effect of his unplanned celibacy taking its toll.

Except he hadn’t reacted this way to the last bride to come here, hadn’t felt anything for her. Hadn’t felt anything for anyone in longer than he could remember.

Yet here he was. Here she was.

It would be so simple to step forward and close the meager space that separated them, to pull her hard against him, to crush his mouth against hers, to see if her lips felt as soft and supple as they looked.

To see how she responded, if she’d have as much fire kissing him back as she had matching him word for word.

It could be incredible. He suspected it would be, every inch of his body taut with the drive, the need, to do it.

It would also be a mistake. That most of all.

And before he did anything he would end up regretting, he quickly turned and walked away.

* * *

ADAM STEPPED AWAY so suddenly Jillian felt a jolt of surprise that rocked her onto her heels. Trying to regain her equilibrium, she watched him stride away toward the side of the house, his back disappearing into the darkness.

She released a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, feeling strangely deflated even before she let it out. That wasn’t what she’d thought was about to happen. She’d thought he’d been about to...

Kiss her. That’s what she’d thought. That’s what every female instinct she had said was coming.

What every deep-seated impulse had been wanting.

Which was crazy.

It was the last thing he should want to do, the last thing she should want him to.

So why did she feel so disappointed?

Jillian stared after him, contemplating the mystery that was Adam Sutton, even though he’d long since vanished from sight. He could be so harsh, so cold. But only when his sister was involved, she acknowledged. Only when it came to his family being threatened.

A man who cared that much about his sister that he would give up his career to take on something she wanted to do couldn’t be all bad, could he?

She suddenly wanted more than anything for the answer to be no, even as part of her wondered if she had even less of a reason to trust him.

Was there a reason he was so protective of his sister? Emma had told her a lot about the staff at Sutton Hall, but Jillian still knew little about the Suttons themselves. If Meredith had been involved in Courtney’s death, Jillian didn’t doubt for a second Adam would do whatever he had to in order to protect her.

It had been Meredith’s decision to put Courtney in that room, Jillian thought, tucking away that piece of information. It made sense, and she’d suspected as much, but it was good to know for sure. Now she just had to figure out if it meant anything.

Exhaling deeply, she fought the urge to press a hand to her throbbing head. All these doubts and suspicions about everyone here were exhausting. She wished there was someone she could confide in, someone she could trust....

Wished it was him...

Jillian shook off the ridiculous thought. She’d known what she was signing up for when she decided to come here. She had to keep on her guard against everyone here, no matter how wearing it was on her.

Especially the ones who might be interfering with her instincts in different ways.

Even as the thought passed through her mind, she felt a prickling at the nape of her neck, an entirely different instinct kicking in. She recognized the sensation, the feeling undeniable.

She was being watched.

Curious, she turned and peered up at the building.

The multitude of windows stared back at her, some of them blazing with light, some gaping with emptiness. She didn’t spot anyone in any of them looking back at her.

Unease creeping along her skin, she glanced around the area. Her unseen watcher didn’t have to be in the house. Whoever it was could be somewhere out here.

She saw nothing in the long shadows surrounding the edge of the driveway and the ends of the house, heard nothing but the faint whisper of the leaves in the trees, stirred by the night wind.

Felt the intensity of that unseen gaze boring into her, as strongly as if it were physically touching her. And there was nothing remotely friendly in the feeling.

Whoever it was, she clearly wasn’t going to spot them. And she suddenly knew without a doubt that they didn’t want to be seen.

Trying her best not to show her unease, even as the sensation of being watched weighed down on her more than ever, she started for the door to the house. Once she was inside, she should be out of the watcher’s sight. Not to mention she needed to call the rental company about her car. Hopefully they’d be able to repair it, or bring her a replacement. Without the vehicle, she was effectively trapped here, on her own.

In a place that was rapidly feeling more dangerous to her by the moment.

* * *

NARROWED EYES FOLLOWED Jillian Jones’s retreat into the house until she disappeared from view. Before she did, she glanced around herself one more time, at the house, at the outside area.

She knew someone was watching her, had been trying to see who it was.

She didn’t know it was too late. The scene that had damned her had already been witnessed.

Revulsion churned at the memory—and what it meant.

Somehow she’d come back with Adam, even though they’d left for town separately. They’d been alone together in his car—at least as long as the ride back. Maybe even longer...

However long it had been, something seemed to have happened between them. That moment they’d shared after climbing out of the car was entirely too intimate for two people with nothing going on between them.

The way he’d stood there, just a little closer than was normal, staring down at her, saying nothing...

The way she’d looked up at him. With intensity. With interest.

With lust.

The sexual attraction between them was undeniable, obvious even from a distance.

And disgusting from any angle.

A woman who was getting married had no business standing that close to a man who wasn’t her husband-to-be, not like that, not for that long. She should have stepped away, made it clear it wasn’t appropriate, that she wasn’t interested.

But she hadn’t.

Jillian Jones was another one, a slut who had no right to put on that white dress, to take vows she didn’t mean, just like the other woman.

She would have to be stopped, too.

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