The Perfect Bride
Author:Kerry Connor

Chapter Eight



Someone had tried to kill her.

Jillian had plenty of time to consider what had happened to her through the darkest hours of the night before dawn finally broke. And of all the conclusions she’d reached, that one loomed the largest.

Someone had tried to kill her.

She knew it in her bones. She remembered the feeling of the weight of the pillow against her face, the shape of the arms beneath her fingers, too vividly not to know they’d been real.

The thought ran over and over again in her head, and every time it sent a fresh jolt of anger through her. It was all she could do not to glance around the dining room table at the others seated over breakfast, hoping to catch a glimpse of a guilty expression or someone looking back at her too intently, or avoiding her gaze too deliberately.

But she didn’t expect anyone to do anything that obvious. More important, she wasn’t going to let them think they’d spooked her, or that she even suspected what had happened wasn’t just a dream. They might wonder why she didn’t try to leave if she thought she’d been attacked, and she wasn’t going anywhere.

Because now there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that what happened to Courtney had been no accident.

She’d been murdered.

Jillian’s stomach clenched with certainty, nearly rejecting the few bites of breakfast she’d choked down. She didn’t know why the attacker had targeted her. Was it because they knew who she was, why she was here, and figured she had to be stopped from asking questions? Or had they come after her for the same reason they’d come after Courtney, something to do with brides in this place? Either way, it couldn’t be a coincidence that the first bride to come to Sutton Hall had died a mysterious death and the second was attacked in the middle of the night. The events had to be connected. And the most reasonable conclusion was that Courtney had met with foul play, exactly as Jillian had figured.

There was another connection as well. Someone had managed to get into her locked room without detection. The police said one of the reasons it seemed clear Courtney must have fallen was because the door to her room had been locked. Adam had told them he’d unlocked the door when she hadn’t responded to any summons that morning, found the room empty and the balcony doors open. Jillian had had her doubts about the story, but now she had to wonder if it was true. She knew firsthand that a locked door wasn’t enough to keep someone out in Sutton Hall, or to prevent a vicious attack. Was that what happened to Courtney?

If they’d used a key to get in, she would have heard them relocking it, even if she hadn’t heard the door shut. There was only one other explanation she could think of for how someone had managed to get in and out of the locked room.

There had to be another, hidden entrance of some kind.

She’d done a cursory search for it that morning, but had come up empty. Which hadn’t killed her conviction that it had to be there.

Preparing her words carefully, she raised her head to look at Grace. “So, Grace, I was wondering about something. When I think of an old mansion like this, I always think of secret passageways and hidden doors, stuff like that. Does Sutton Hall have any of those?”

At the other side of the table, Grace went very still, her mouth thinning in a tight smile. “I’m afraid not. Those types of things are only found in fiction, or if not, the builders of Sutton Hall weren’t nearly so creative.”

She was lying. Even if Jillian wasn’t positive the passages had to exist, the woman’s body language gave her away. She was trying to remain casual, all while her neck and shoulders had tensed just enough to indicate she wasn’t.

“Secret passageways?” Adam asked.

Jillian slowly turned her head to look at him, trying to forget how he’d looked in her dream last night. He watched her through narrowed eyes, his skepticism clear.

She shrugged lightly. “You have to admit, it’s something most people would be curious about. Can’t blame me for asking.”

He raised a brow, as if to ask, Can’t I?

She simply smiled back at him, taking a perverse enjoyment from the way his expression darkened in response, as though he suspected she was up to something. No surprise there.

Then, as she stared at that coolly considering face, another thought occurred to her, killing that momentary pleasure.

Could he be the one who’d attacked her?

No, a voice in the back of her mind replied, rejecting the idea immediately. As soon as she did, she had to question her reaction. Did she really think it hadn’t been him, or did she just not want to believe it?

As she took in that dark steady gaze and felt a nervous flutter deep in her belly in response, she had to admit she didn’t know.

“You’re right, of course,” Meredith interjected into the silence, her voice tight. “It would be a great marketing gimmick if this place came complete with secret passages. Maybe we should look and see if we can find any.”

Me first. “Maybe,” Jillian agreed.

Even as she said it, she shot a glance at Grace. The woman’s head remained bowed, her attention on her plate, but Jillian didn’t miss the way her lips thinned into a tense, unhappy line, or how she seemed to have paled.

Grace didn’t like the idea at all.

Jillian’s certainty only grew, and she had to resist the urge to smile. She was right.

Now she just had to prove it.

* * *

CLAIMING SHE HAD an upset stomach, Jillian headed back to her room right after breakfast. As soon as she reached it, she began to consider where the hidden door could be. The attacker had managed to get out of the room between the time when she’d fought them off and when she’d turned on the lamp, so the entrance had to be relatively close to the bed, near enough that they could duck back through it and shut it again quickly. She eyed the wall next to the bed, figuring it had to be somewhere along there.

She didn’t immediately spot anything out of the ordinary. It appeared to be nothing more than a plain wall. But of course a secret passageway would hardly be secret if it was obvious where the entrance was.

Stepping forward, she pressed her ear to the wall and began tapping along it, listening carefully for an echoing sound that could indicate the presence of an empty space on the other side. She made it all the way from the corner nearest the door to the edge of the bed, but didn’t hear a thing. The wall sounded completely solid.

That didn’t necessarily mean anything, she thought resolutely. The wall still might be thick enough to muffle the sound.

If there was some kind of door in the wall, there had to be a way to open it, assuming it wasn’t only from the other side. Hoping that wasn’t the case, she reached forward and pressed her fingers along the wallpaper, searching for any kind of button or latch, or even an indentation in the wall that would indicate the outline of a door.

She slowly, painstakingly began to go over the wall, starting at the top and working her way all along it, then dropping a little lower and making her way back.

She’d done several passes and was in the middle of the wall, her fingers at about shoulder level, when she finally felt something. It was so faint her fingertips nearly passed over it. Some vague instinct made her stop and retrace it, to confirm she hadn’t imagined it.

It was a rectangular outline, roughly the size of an electrical outlet cover, though she didn’t think that was what it was. It didn’t protrude from the wall at all, but seemed to be part of the wall itself, as though carved into it. Touching the shape gingerly, she tried to figure out why it was there and what it could be. She didn’t doubt that it had to be something, noticing that it perfectly aligned with the pattern on the wallpaper, which formed a rectangular shape right on top of it. It didn’t stand out from the rest of the pattern, but if someone knew the rectangle was there, that spot on the pattern would offer a clear indication where to find it.

Without thinking about it, she pushed in on it.

A large section of the wall abruptly swung toward her the slightest bit, like a door suddenly ajar.

Which was exactly what it was, she realized. The protruding section of wall was roughly the size and shape of a regular door, only lacking a standard doorknob. It had released with near silence. It was so quiet she wasn’t surprised she hadn’t heard it last night over the pounding of her heart and her desperate breathing.

Rising to stand, she ran her fingers along the open edge in amazement. She’d looked at exactly that spot and hadn’t noticed anything. She never would have known it was there. Even the spot she’d pushed was completely ingrained in the wall, making it utterly unnoticeable unless someone was specifically looking for it or knew where to find it.

Reaching out eagerly, she grabbed the edge in two hands and pulled it open. It moved easily. When she’d managed to create an opening several feet wide she stopped and looked inside.

Another wall lay directly in front of her, and in it was the outline of a rectangular shape. Another door. The next room over was the one in the southeast tower on this floor.

She looked over to see a thin set of stairs leading upward on her left, continuing downward on her right. A staircase, she thought, wonder bubbling through her. The passageway was a staircase between the tower and the rooms next to it.

For a moment she could only stand there and take it in, amazement spiraling through her. It was exactly what she’d expected. But believing it had to be there was different from seeing an actual hidden passageway in an old mansion in the flesh.

There didn’t appear to be any lights that she could see, maybe not surprising since the manor—and the passages—had been built before the days of electricity. While the rest of the mansion had been upgraded, it didn’t appear anyone had bothered with these.

More thankful than ever that she’d brought her flashlight, she grabbed it and stepped into the passageway. There was no time to waste. She wanted to confirm where it led, and see if there was any way to tell who’d been in here last.

Moving forward, Jillian shined the flashlight around the inside of the passage. The tunnel was maybe eight feet high and three feet wide, much thinner than a typical hallway, but big enough that an average-sized person could walk down it easily. The walls were plain and unpainted. The floors were made of stone, and on them—

She froze, aiming the flashlight on the ground and looking closer. They appeared to be covered with a layer of dust, noticeable only because it had been disturbed by—

Footprints. There were footprints in the dust.

The passages had been used recently.

Proof, she thought, triumph racing through her.

Jillian hesitated for a moment, suddenly unsure whether she wanted to disturb the evidence that someone had been here. But this might be her only chance to explore. She couldn’t waste it.

Resolutely, she turned left and started up the steps.

The stairwell wound upward, no doubt following the tower. She could see only a few feet in front of her at a time, the wall constantly curving before her. Jillian imagined a servant navigating these passages over a hundred years ago, a candle in hand, with only the flickering flame to light the cold stone walls. Or maybe the Suttons themselves, creeping about in the walls of their own mansion, for who-only-knew what purpose....

The stairs came to an abrupt end at a short landing. Based on the height of the ceiling above her, Jillian assumed she’d reached the top of the tower.

Again there were the outlines of two doors on either side of her. The one on the left had to lead into the bedroom directly above hers. And the one on the right—

The bedroom at the top of this tower.

Spotting a lever next to the door, Jillian automatically reached for it. She hesitated briefly, wondering about the possibility that someone was in the room on the other side. It didn’t seem likely. As far as she knew it wasn’t occupied, and what were the chances someone would be cleaning it right now?

She pulled the lever.

The door unlatched. A thrill of excitement racing through her, she put her shoulder to it and began pushing it in. It only took a few inches for Jillian to see exactly what she’d expected.

It wasn’t exactly the same as the room in the other tower where Courtney had stayed, but the layout was nearly identical, only reversed. And if there was a hidden passageway in this tower, Jillian had no doubt there was one in the other, most likely in all of them.

This was it, she thought, anger and certainty hardening into a tight knot in the pit of her stomach. This was how somebody had gotten to Courtney. She probably hadn’t even seen them coming. They’d come in through the passageway unannounced, managed to get her to the balcony and then—

Jillian swallowed hard at the images that played out in her head.

The only remaining mystery was whether she’d been dead before she’d gone off the balcony—or after.

Wincing at the thought, Jillian turned away from the scene. She didn’t want to think about that now.

She would love to go back to the other tower to confirm it, but she didn’t know if Adam still had the sensor in place. She couldn’t have him catching her there, couldn’t let him know she was aware of the hidden stairs. There was far more she needed to explore.

Grabbing the latch on the inside of the wall-door, she yanked it hard and pulled it shut. All right. So she knew the tower bedroom and her own were both accessible from the tunnel. Now to see where else it led.

As she made her way back down the stairs to the second floor, she remembered that Meredith was the one who’d put Courtney in the tower bedroom and Jillian in the room she was in. Just another coincidence, or had Meredith known exactly what she was doing to give someone—herself?—access to her guests?

Jillian thought back to Meredith’s reaction at breakfast. She hadn’t given any indication she knew about the passages, but then, Jillian had mostly been paying attention to Grace’s reactions.

More questions, she thought with a grimace. Every time she found an answer, it only led to more puzzles. All she could do was keep moving forward and hope she eventually arrived at the ultimate answers she needed.

She passed the second floor, where the door to her room was still slightly ajar, and continued on. The stairwell spiraled downward into the dark.

Another door finally appeared up ahead in the beam of her flashlight. It was on the inner wall of the stairwell. She figured that must mean it led to a room inside the tower. At the same time the stairs continued going downward beyond it.

She hadn’t been on this side of the house in the first floor, had no idea what room could be in the tower here. She needed to know, though. Needed to learn what room this was to figure out how her attacker had most likely accessed the passageway to get to her.

Only one way to find out.

Loosening the latch, she opened the door, then began pushing it in. With any luck, this room would be empty, too.

Once she’d created a large enough gap, she straightened. She caught a glimpse of a wall full of books. From what she could see, it was a library of some kind, maybe a study or office....

She took a couple steps in, then came to an abrupt stop.

It appeared her luck had run out.

Adam stood a few feet in front of her, eyes wide, his mouth open slightly. There was a desk behind him, and she realized in an instant she’d been right. This was an office.

His office.

He looked shocked—because he really hadn’t known about the passageways, or just because of her sudden appearance from them?

“What the hell—?” He stared first at her, then at the gap she’d opened in the wall. “What are you doing in there?”

“Just exploring these secret passages. You know, the ones that don’t exist?”

“How—? What—?” Evidently unable to settle on the question he wanted to ask most, he finally clamped his mouth shut and gave his head a hard shake. “Get out of there. I don’t know how you managed to find that, but I can’t have you wandering around in there. It might not be safe.”

“It’s fine,” she said patiently.

“You can’t know that for sure, and I certainly can’t. God only knows how long it’s been since anyone’s been in there, what kind of shape it’s in. If anything happened—”

Clearly arguing wasn’t going to get her anywhere, and she wasn’t about to let him stop her. Without listening to another word, she spun around and ducked back into the passage.

“Hey!”

His voice echoed from behind her, but she didn’t stop moving, continuing onward. She’d made it down half a dozen stairs when she felt him coming up behind her. She braced herself for him to grab her and make her stop.

He didn’t, as he caught up and fell into step behind her. She sensed him glancing around them.

“You can barely see anything in here.”

“That’s what the flashlight is for,” she pointed out.

“And of course wandering around in a hidden passage you know nothing about with only a flashlight is perfectly safe.”

“I’m getting by well enough.”

“You know, this is my house,” he said darkly.

“Well, then I’d think you’d like to get to know it better, because clearly there’s a lot you don’t know about it.”

There was a beat of silence, and she could practically hear him grinding his teeth. “Is this why you came here? Because you wanted to look for secret passages?”

“No, this is just something I thought of today,” she said truthfully.



“Uh-huh,” he said, his disbelief obvious. “And what were you hoping to find if you did locate these hidden pathways?”

“Isn’t that enough? Actual secret passages? They’re not exactly something you see every day. If anything, you should be thanking me for something that will draw a lot more interest to this place and that your guests will love to see.”

“That’s just what we need. People wandering around inside the walls unsupervised. Never mind the possible safety hazard, there’s no telling where these passages even go.”

“All the more reason to explore them, don’t you think—?”

Her foot suddenly slipped, flying out from under her. She hurtled forward, the flashlight tumbling out of her hand, the ground rushing up to meet her—

Something caught her right arm, breaking her fall, bringing her to an abrupt halt. She was whipped around, colliding with something hard and solid and immovable.

Breathless, she raised her head. It didn’t help. She couldn’t see anything, the flashlight and its faint glow somewhere on the floor behind her. It didn’t matter. She knew whose hand was on her arm, whose body she was pressed against, even as she processed what had happened.

She’d slipped. He’d caught her.

As she peered up, trying to catch even the faintest glimpse of his face, she sensed him looking down at her.

“Are you okay?” he asked. The low rumble of his voice rolled over her like a caress, making her shudder in response.

She immediately knew he’d felt it, his body tensing slightly. He didn’t say anything, and she realized he was probably still waiting for her response.

She managed a nod, only realizing a heartbeat later that he couldn’t see it. “Yes, I’m fine.”

She waited, expecting him to release his hold on her.

He didn’t. His hand remained clasped around her arm, not too tight, but secure, and undeniably there. It wasn’t the tightness of his hold she felt. It was the heat of his fingers against her flesh, the texture of his skin on hers, the coiled strength in his grip.

“Do you have your feet under you?” he asked, his voice even softer, and she nearly trembled again.

She flexed her feet, checking her bearings. The ground was solid beneath her. “Yes.”

His fingers instantly popped open, letting her go. The action was so abrupt she might have rocked back on her heels if he hadn’t let her steady herself beforehand.

She felt him lean back slightly. “Like I said, it’s not safe in here.”

You might be right about that. She turned away to retrieve the flashlight. It lay a few feet away, and she immediately realized why she’d stumbled. The stairs had ended, the ground leveling out. She’d been so distracted by their conversation she hadn’t even noticed. “I tripped. It happens.”

“Not in my secret passageways, you don’t. As I’m sure you remember, we’ve had some experience lately with women coming to Sutton Hall and...falling.”

Jillian could tell from the edge in his words that he was baiting her, all too accurately, as it was. At the moment, the reminder was a welcome one. She needed to get a grip and keep in mind exactly why she’d come here. She didn’t have time to be distracted by anything.

Or anyone.

Picking up the flashlight, she turned back to face him, illuminating the space between them. “I guess your concern does make a certain amount of sense when you put it like that,” she conceded.

“Good. Let’s get out of here.”

“Do you want to go back up?” she asked, nodding toward the way they’d just come down.

“Let’s not risk the stairs again. It’ll probably be faster just to find the nearest exit down here. I’m sure there has to be one.”

“I’m sure,” Jillian murmured. She suspected there were exits all over the place, the passages offering access to any number of rooms in the house.

She shined her flashlight ahead of them, revealing a long, straight corridor that stretched on beyond the reach of the beam. They slowly moved down it. Contrary to their best guess, there didn’t appear to be any doors along it. The walls were bare and seemingly unending.

“Is this the basement?” she asked.

“It has to be, but I don’t recognize this hallway. We must still be within the walls.”

The longer they walked, the more those walls seemed to close in on them. Jillian swallowed hard, unsure if the hallway was really narrowing or if it just felt that way. She was almost surprised he didn’t suggest they turn back after all, but maybe he felt they had to be closer to the exit than the stairs at this point. All the while, she was more aware than ever of his presence just behind her, an arm’s length away.

Finally, when it seemed as if the corridor truly would go on forever, another set of stairs appeared at the end of the flashlight’s beam. The sight was so faint she couldn’t be sure she wasn’t imagining it at first. But the closer she came to them, the clearer it became that the stairs were real. They led up just one level to another door.

There was an exit after all. She felt Adam relax slightly behind her. Relief climbing in her throat, she started moving a little faster.

Reaching the steps, she took them two at a time. And then the door was there, right in front of her. She came to a stop, automatically reaching for the latch to release it.

“Let me—” Adam started to say.

“I’ve got it,” she said, pushing the door inward before he could try to take her place.

It took her a moment to recognize the room that greeted her. It was the kitchen. The panel had opened into one of the side walls in Sutton Hall’s massive kitchen.

Stepping into the room, Jillian immediately saw it wasn’t empty, either. Rosie, Ed and Grace stood around the main island talking. None of them noticed her entrance at first. Only when Adam exited the passage behind her, his footsteps heavy on the hardwood floor, did they look up.

Ed’s eyebrows shot up. Rosie’s mouth formed an O of surprise. But it was Grace’s face Jillian zeroed in on as the housekeeper took in their dusty, disheveled appearance with rapidly growing horror.

“Hello, Grace,” Adam said grimly. “I think we need to talk.”