THE BEST MAN TO TRUST
The storm was getting worse.
Meredith Sutton stood in the open doorway and watched the darkness gathering over Sutton Hall. The snow had been coming down for several hours now, but it was only in the last couple that it had become clear just how bad this storm would be. The wind had picked up, shaking the windows and whistling through the eaves. Light flurries had turned into a heavy downfall, as though a white curtain had been dropped over the world. The curtain was still translucent, but soon it would be impenetrable.
Staring out into the snow, Meredith tried to convince herself that the feeling of unease weighing down on her was solely due to the weather.
Unfortunately, lying to herself wasn’t that easy. As she kept an eye on the end of the driveway, she was entirely too aware of the cause of her apprehension.
They should have been here by now. If they didn’t arrive soon, they might not arrive at all. They might be forced to stay in town, or at the airport.
Which might not be such a bad thing, a voice whispered in the back of her mind.
Meredith did her best to shake off the doubts. Nothing was going to happen this weekend. The wedding would go perfectly.
She would never make it through the next few days if she let herself think otherwise.
“Any sign of them yet?”
The voice came from behind her, just before Rick Tucker, the new handyman at Sutton Hall, appeared beside her to stick his head outside and look for himself.
“Not yet,” Meredith said.
“They should be here by now,” Rick murmured. “Hope they didn’t get stuck in town.”
“Hmm,” Meredith replied, unable to bring herself to agree. “If they were smart they wouldn’t try to make it up the mountain in this weather.”
“I guess so. Shame if the wedding was canceled though. It’ll be nice to get the first wedding under our belts, won’t it? Finally get a fresh start for this place.”
“Yes, it will.” Funny, but when she’d come here, she was supposed be the one getting a fresh start. She’d never dreamed the place itself would need one, never imagined the terrible things that would happen here.
It had been a year and a half since she and her brother Adam inherited Sutton Hall, an elegant manor in the mountains of Vermont, from a distant relative they’d never heard of. A year and a half since she had taken one look at the high ceilings and gorgeous wooden interiors, the mountain views and garden outside, and decided this would be a beautiful place to hold weddings. A year and a half since she’d begun work on the business that was supposed to be her new beginning.
And six months since the first bride to come to Sutton Hall had been murdered, thrown off the balcony of the bridal suite.
The killer had eventually been caught, but most of the couples whose weddings had been scheduled after that first one that never took place had understandably canceled. Meredith had returned their deposits though she hadn’t legally been required to, not really blaming them for the decision. A dozen weddings had been booked before the murder, and all had canceled.
All but one.
During the flurry of cancellations, Meredith had fully expected the Delaney/Pierce wedding to follow suit. When that hadn’t happened, Meredith had called Rachel Delaney to confirm she hadn’t simply forgotten to do so, or to make sure she’d heard about what had happened here. But no, Rachel had verified that she knew about the murder and she and her groom still wanted to be married at Sutton Hall. Everything was to proceed as planned.
Of course the one wedding that wasn’t canceled was the one Meredith had been dreading from the start.
Unlike the other couples who’d originally planned to have their weddings here, Rachel Delaney and Scott Pierce weren’t strangers to her. Not entirely, at least. The three of them had gone to the same college and graduated together seven years ago. Meredith hadn’t really known Scott, and she and Rachel had only been acquaintances at best, but there was enough of a connection that they weren’t completely unfamiliar with each other, although she hadn’t seen either of them since college. Meredith had recognized a few of the other names on the guest list, all of them fellow alumni.
It was a time Meredith wasn’t particularly fond of remembering. Unfortunately, there wasn’t going to be much chance of avoiding it this weekend.
Adam and his fiancée Jillian were supposed to be here to help her with this, but they’d taken what was supposed to be a short trip to San Francisco so Jillian could take care of some business, only to find themselves stuck there longer than they’d intended. First Jillian had come down with a stomach virus and they’d missed their original flight, then their replacement flight had been canceled due to the storm. The flight Meredith had wanted to arrive hadn’t and the one she’d been worried about coming had.
She could only hope it wasn’t a sign of how her luck was going to go this weekend.
Twin beams of light suddenly materialized through the curtain of snow, aiming dimly at her. She immediately recognized it as an approaching vehicle, relief and dread surging inside her. She couldn’t tell which was stronger.
She watched as the vehicle gradually took shape through the snow, emerging as a passenger car. Another car soon appeared behind it. They slowly rounded the circular driveway in front of the house, pulling up a few yards from the door where she waited.
The first car had barely pulled to a stop when Rick brushed by her, hurrying out to help the newcomers. She belatedly realized she should do the same. She’d been holding her coat in front of her the whole time, the item dangling loosely from her hands.
By the time she started to shrug into it, the passenger doors were opening and a few bundled-up figures began dashing toward her through the snow.
Tossing her coat aside, Meredith pulled the door open further to let the newcomers in. Seconds later, they reached the front stoop and hurried over the threshold.
They came to a stop in front of her, immediately stomping the snow from their boots. She waited as they started to shed their heavy layers, unraveling scarves, pushing back hoods and tugging off gloves.
They were all women, Meredith saw. She instantly recognized the one closest to her, even before the woman opened her mouth and said, “Meredith?” in a voice she’d heard numerous times over the phone the past few weeks. This was Rachel Delaney, the bride-to-be.
“Rachel,” she said with a smile. “It’s great to see you. Welcome to Sutton Hall.”
“Thank you. I can’t believe we made it!”
“Honestly, I can’t believe you tried! I was sure you would have decided to ride out the storm somewhere.” And probably should have, she thought, as a strong gust of wind burst through the still-open door, blowing snow in at them.
A slim brunette with dark brown eyes, Rachel laughed, her face aglow. “Are you kidding? I wasn’t going to let anything keep me from my wedding.” Her eyes finally moved past Meredith, widening as they took in the massive front entryway of Sutton Hall. “Or this place. My God, it’s even more amazing than I imagined.”
Meredith swallowed a sigh of relief at the pleasure in the woman’s voice. Rachel had been very particular about every aspect of the arrangements so far. An interior decorator by profession, she had an eye for design and, as she’d made clear over the past few months, she knew what she wanted. Meredith had been bracing herself to deal with a very high-maintenance bride on top of everything else. It was good to know one thing had met with her approval. Hopefully it meant they would get the weekend off on the right foot, the weather notwithstanding.
In spite of everything, Meredith couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pride as she turned to follow Rachel’s gaze. Sutton Hall’s front foyer certainly made an incredible first impression. The vast entrance hall stretched two stories high. An elaborate crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, and below it a plush red carpet led the way across the marble floor to the staircase at the other end. The grand staircase split into two halfway up and continued curving up to the second floor in opposite directions. Even after more than a year here, the sight of this room never failed to amaze her.
“Oh!” Rachel exclaimed, drawing Meredith’s attention back to her. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude. I should introduce you, if you don’t know each other already.” She motioned toward the other women. “Meredith, these are my bridesmaids and two of my oldest friends in the world, Haley Nash and Jessica Burke. Guys, this is Meredith Sutton.”
Haley Nash, Meredith knew, was the maid of honor. A tall, lean blonde, she greeted Meredith with a smile. Her face was open and friendly, but Meredith still felt herself shrink a little inside reflexively. The woman had the kind of beauty that had always made her feel inadequate, as though she shouldn’t be standing anywhere near this person. She did her best to hide it, pasting on a smile and meeting Haley’s eyes long enough to not seem rude.
Jessica Burke was also beautiful, but that wasn’t what Meredith immediately noticed about her. It was the hostility glittering in the woman’s dark eyes as she stared back at Meredith, her lips compressed in a thinly concealed frown. Meredith barely managed to keep from frowning herself. She didn’t remember Jessica well from school, was pretty sure they’d never said two words to each other. She couldn’t imagine what the woman would have against her.
Before she could figure it out, several more figures suddenly burst through the doorway. Meredith quickly took stock of the newcomers as they began casting off layers like the women had. She recognized Alex Corbett, having worked with him on the school paper back in college. He’d gone on to become a respected journalist, making quite a name for himself as an investigative reporter. He was going to be officiating the ceremony. The man beside him had to be Greg Radford, she guessed, remembering the name of the best man from the guest list. The man behind them pulled off the scarf covering his face, revealing Scott Pierce, Rachel’s fiancée, a tall man with dark hair and eyes.
But it wasn’t the groom-to-be who grabbed her attention.
It was the man behind him, brushing snow from the hair that was as blond and thick as the last time she’d seen it. Everything inside her went utterly still.
Recognition slammed into her like a blow to the chest. His was a name, a face she hadn’t thought of in years, had actually forgotten somehow. As soon as she realized that fact it seemed impossible to believe.
In an instant, she was eighteen again, staring across a crowded room at the most beautiful boy she’d ever seen in her whole life, everything within her freezing as it did now.
How many times had she stood exactly like this, staring at him, unable to look away….
Desperately hoping he’d notice her.
Terrified that he would, not wanting to see the look on his face when someone that beautiful cast his eyes on her.
He hadn’t noticed her, of course. Then, or ever. Why would he? He was beautiful. And she was…
No, when someone had finally noticed her, it had been Brad.
And her nightmare had begun.
Meredith tried to shake the onslaught of memories even as the emotions they raised threatened to rack her body. She didn’t have time to go down that path. Not now. Not ever, really.
She’d just begun to get a grip on her emotions when Tom Campbell suddenly raised his head.
For the first time, his eyes met hers. And her heart suddenly, stupidly, stopped dead in her chest.
He was somehow even better looking than he’d been before. But of course, he’d only been a boy then, all of eighteen or nineteen. The years had added maturity to his face, deepening its character, wiping away all traces of boyishness. The face before her was a man’s, his jaw strong, his features lean and chiseled. The eyes were the same though, still a deep, startling blue, the color so rich it seemed she could lose herself in them if she looked long enough.
His lips curved upward slightly in a polite but vague smile, as if she was a stranger.
Which she was to him, of course.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Rachel suddenly said, jolting Meredith’s attention away from the man who’d held it so fully. Meredith realized she’d probably been staring. Oh, God, she hoped she hadn’t been staring….
Grimacing apologetically, Rachel gestured toward Tom. “Meredith, I hope it’s not a problem, but there’s been a small change in plans. This is Tom Campbell, Scott’s best man.”
Meredith didn’t have to fake her surprise. “Oh, I thought— His name wasn’t on the guest list….”
“Campbell was my first choice, but he originally couldn’t make the date, so Radford was going to stand in,” Scott explained with a nod toward the third man who stood a few feet away. “But at the last minute Campbell was able to make it after all.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to let you know beforehand that there’d be an extra guest,” Rachel said. “It really was last-minute and I had so many other things to keep track of….”
“I hope it won’t be an imposition,” Tom said, his voice so warm and deep she felt it roll along her skin and nearly shuddered.
She managed to meet the bluest eyes she’d ever seen without wavering. “Of course not,” she said, her voice thankfully steady. “Obviously we have plenty of room.” She waved a hand toward the cavernous space around them to emphasize the point.
As she did, the lights chose that particular moment to flicker once, then twice, before steadying, as though to demonstrate the precariousness of the power. “Now we just need electricity,” she said with a chuckle, deliberately keeping her tone light in response to the nervousness that passed across her guests’ faces. “Fortunately, we have a generator if the power goes out. We’ll be fine.”
The anxiety gradually faded from their expressions, exactly as she’d intended.
Fortunately she had plenty of experience trying to appease disgruntled moods. With any luck she wouldn’t have to rely on it too much over the next few days.
Five days, she thought faintly. Today was Thursday. They were scheduled to leave Monday. They would be here for five days.
Tom Campbell would be here for five days.
Behind the group, Rick hurried into the entryway with a few bags, closing the door behind him. Everyone must be accounted for. “Now then,” Meredith said. “Why don’t we show you to your rooms so you can get settled in? We can take care of your bags later. Our cook is working on dinner as we speak, so I hope you’re all hungry.”
The statement was met with a chorus of cheers and excited chatter, confirming she’d managed to put her guests back in a good mood. As she turned toward the stairs to lead the way up, she felt her own tension ease the slightest bit.
Everything’s going to be fine, she told herself again.
She just hoped there wouldn’t be any more surprises this weekend.
Copyright © 2013 by Kerry Connor. All Rights Reserved.
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.