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Jillian Jones had spent hours studying pictures of Sutton Hall, but she still wasn't prepared for her first glimpse of the place in person. One moment she was driving up the long private road that led to the estate, the next the trees framing the driveway suddenly cleared and there it was, the massive building looming in front of her.
She automatically eased her foot off the accelerator and stepped on the brake, bringing the rental car to a gradual stop. Her heart pounding, she stared up at the house she'd only seen in those photographsand in her nightmares.
It was beautiful. In spite of everything, she couldn't help but recognize that much. The immense structure rose three soaring stories above the earth. Its gray stone walls appeared as solid and ancient as the mountains behind it and seemed to stretch as far. Each of its corners met at a round tower, giving it an appearance more like that of a castle than a simple mansion.
It was exactly as Courtney had described it, like something out of a fairy tale.
Unfortunately, as Jillian had been reminded all too recently, not all fairy tales had happy endings.
It was hard to believe it had only been a month since her best friend had come here to plan her wedding, believing she would have that fairy tale.
Instead, Courtney had left in a body bag.
Eric, Courtney's fiance, was still inconsolable. This was supposed to be the happiest time of his life, and instead it had become the worst.
The guilt welled inside her again, bringing tears to Jillian's eyes. She did her best to choke back the feeling, but was unable to shake it completely.
She should have been here. That was the maid of honor's job, to be there for the bride. But she'd been swamped with work, having recently launched her own freelance graphic design business. After months of effort, she'd finally begun to build a client list and had projects she'd needed to finish. Not to mention the idea of dealing with flowers and dresses and seating charts had seemed like her worst nightmare. She'd even suggested to Courtney that she might want to choose someone else to be her maid of honor, someone who knew a lot more and possessed a great deal more interest in wedding arrangements than she did.
"It's a job for the best friend," Courtney had said. It didn't matter that they lived on different sides of the country and only got to see each other a few times a year, if that. Ever since they'd met in Mrs. Parks's first-grade class at Thompson Elementary, they'd been best friends, as good as sisters. "Don't worry, I won't make you do any girlie stuff. All you have to do is be there for me."
But Jillian hadn't been. The only thing Courtney had asked of her, and she'd failed.
Courtney had been alone here for a week finalizing the arrangements before the rest of the small wedding party was scheduled to arrive. And that was exactly how she'd died. Alone.
The official determination was that Courtney's death had been a tragic accident. She'd been on the balcony outside her room on a windy night, had come too close to the edge and fallen over.
Which was a load of crap, Jillian thought, the now familiar anger rising. Courtney had been afraid of heights. She never would have been anywhere near a balcony, let alone close enough to fall from one. But the door to her room had supposedly still been locked from the inside. There'd been no indication of foul play or any reason the police could determine why anyone would want to hurt her. In the absence of any hard evidence proving otherwise, the authorities had concluded it had to be an accident.
Leaving Jillian no choice but to come here herself and find out the truth.
She'd known if she came here as herself, it was unlikely anyone would talk to her or that she'd learn anything different from what the authorities already had. No, she'd needed another reason to be here. So she'd called pretending to be a bride wanting to book her own wedding.
Her main concern had been that someone would remember her name as that of Courtney's missing maid of honor. Luckily Courtney had always called her Jaythe only person who hadso Jillian knew if her name had come up at all, it would have been the nickname. The woman she'd spoken with on the phoneMeredith Sutton, one of the ownershad given no indication she recognized Jillian's name. She'd merely been cautious, wanting to be sure Jillian knew what had happened here. Unsurprisingly, it seemed that nearly all of the other weddings that had been booked at the manor had been canceled, their brides and grooms no longer interested in being wed anywhere near Sutton Hall. Jillian had assured the woman she was aware of the tragic death and wasn't deterred by the fact that such an unfortunate accident had taken place. Meredith Sutton had still hesitated, as though she wasn't sure she wanted to try hosting another wedding here herself, before finally relenting.
Now Jillian was going to have to do all the things she'd shrugged off beforeimmerse herself in wedding arrangements, choose flowers and color schemes and whatever else was involved. For Courtney she would do it, the way she should have the first time.
And more important, she was going to get the truth.
Sucking in a breath, Jillian finally moved her foot back to the gas pedal and proceeded on to the house.
Unsure where to park, she rounded the circular driveway and pulled up directly in front of the building. The car had barely come to a stop when the front door to the house swung open. A woman stepped outside and stood on the stoop, raising her hand to wave.
This is it, Jillian thought, bracing herself as she put the car in Park. Showtime.
With one last deep breath, she climbed out of the car, fixing a smile upon her face as she waved back at the woman. Jillian recognized her from her research. This was Meredith Sutton, the woman who owned the estate with her brother, Adam.
"Hello!" the woman called out, a trace of a tremor in her voice. "You must be Jillian."
"That's right. Meredith?" Jillian asked as if she didn't know.
"That's me," the woman said, a touch of self-deprecation in her words. "It's great to finally meet you in person."
"You, too." Meredith Sutton was a thin woman in her late twenties with brown hair that hung to her shoulders. It was pulled away from her face, revealing pale skin and a faint smile. An air of vulnerability hung over her, as though a stiff breeze was capable of blowing her over. As soon as she made eye contact, her gaze almost immediately skittered away. A few seconds later, she managed to bring her eyes up again, this time meeting Jillian's and holding steady.
Jillian could almost feel the effort it took her to maintain eye contact. The woman radiated nervous energy. Considering what had happened to the first bride who came here to be married, that probably made sense.
Or was there more to it? Jillian couldn't help wondering as a pang of suspicion struck low in her gut. Something beyond a simple accident had happened to Courtney, she had no doubt about that. Someone was very likely involved, and as one of the owners, Meredith Sutton was more likely than not to know what had really happened here. Maybe she had good reason to be nervous. Guilty conscience?
Doing her best not to let her suspicions show on her face, Jillian leaned back and gestured toward the building. "This is so much more than I expected."
"The pictures don't quite do it justice, do they?" Meredith said, following Jillian's gaze. "I don't mean to sound like I'm bragging. Adam and I inherited the place almost a year ago and most days it still catches me by surprise that we actually own something like this. It's hard to believe a place like this even exists anymore as it is."
"Did you come here much before you inherited it?"
"Never," Meredith admitted. "We didn't know it existed. The last owner was a distant relative we'd never heard of. He didn't have any other relations, so the place fell to us. The whole thing was pretty amazing."
Jillian had to agree. Inheriting a place like this from an unknown relative was pretty incredible, and so was the place itself. Still, as she took it in from this angle, a sense of foreboding washed over her, sending her heart pounding faster. From a distance, with the sunlight shining down upon it, the massive structure had appeared majestic and regal. Standing this close, peering up at the building, it looked different. Gloomy. Oppressive. There were so many corners the sunlight didn't touch or that had long shadows cast upon them, the windows a thousand hooded eyes staring back at her. The house suddenly seemed as sinister as Jillian had thought it would be and seen in her nightmares.
She wanted to believe she was just imagining things, projecting her own feelings on the building. She couldn't quite manage it, as a chill slowly rolled down her spine.
Meredith fluttered a hand, drawing Jillian's attention back to her. "Anyway, come in, come in. You've had a long trip. I'm sure you'd like to get settled in."
"Should I move the car?" Jillian asked.
"Just give me your keys and I'll have someone take care of that and get your bags for you."
The woman held out her hand for the keys. Jillian hesitated for a split second, suddenly unsure whether she wanted to be separated from her only means of escape from the place, the isolation and distance from the closest town hitting her. Still, there was no reasonable way to turn down the offer. Telling herself she was being ridiculous, she dropped the keys in Meredith's palm.
If the woman noticed Jillian's hesitation, she didn't show it, her expression never changing as she gestured for Jillian to precede her inside. "Please."
Pushing aside the last of her misgivings, Jillian worked up a smile and stepped through the entryway.
She'd barely made it over the threshold when she came to a stop, overwhelmed by the sight that met her eyes. Before her was a massive foyer that seemed to rise a full two stories. At the other end of the space stood a wide staircase that split in two halfway up and curved upward in either direction to reach the next level. A large glass chandelier suspended in the center of the room glowed golden beams downward. High archways on the sides offered tantalizing glimpses of the rooms and hallways beyond.
For a moment, Jillian's suspicions and her wariness of the place faded away, overshadowed by the reality before her. It really was magnificent, the kind of place it was hard to believe existed, as Meredith had said, or that she would ever find herself in.
"Takes your breath away, doesn't it?" Meredith murmured, stepping up beside her.
"It really does."
As she continued to take it all in, a woman entered from the left and came to stand in the center of the foyer, folding her hands in front of herself as though waiting to greet them.
Meredith automatically moved forward, leaving Jil-lian to do the same a moment later. "Jillian, this is Grace Bentley, our head of housekeeping here, though that title doesn't begin to cover what she does. Grace has been here at Sutton Hall for almost thirty years and has been in charge for most of that time. She knows the place like the back of her hand, far better than I do, and she'll be able to help you with any questions you might have, any logistical issues in terms of locations for wedding events, that sort of thing."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Grace," Jillian said.
"Likewise," the woman returned with almost imperial formalness. "If there's anything you require, please let me know."
The words were polite, but there was no real warmth in them, and Grace Bentley didn't seem particularly welcoming, giving off a distinctly chilly air. She was a tall, thin woman in her fifties, dressed in a plain black dress, her dark hair tied back in a rather severe twist. She smiled faintly when she made the offer, her face a carefully composed mask that revealed nothing.
"Why don't I show you to your room?" Meredith suggested. "I know you've been traveling all day and might want to get settled in a bit before we jump in to the wedding preparations."
"That sounds great," Jillian said, meaning it. After flying in from San Francisco, she'd had to drive over an hour to reach the small town of Hawthorne, Vermont, at the base of the mountain before continuing on to the manor. As eager as she was to begin asking questions and feeling her way around here, having a moment to take a breath and get her bearings would be more than welcome.
"Right this way."
They walked down the long red carpet in the middle of the marble floor toward the stairs, allowing Jillian a better view of something she'd noticed from the far side of the foyer, but had been unable to examine closely. A portrait hung at the juncture of the staircase where it split in separate directions. A man and woman in wedding attireclearly a bride and groomposing in this very hall. They were smiling, understandably enough, and the artist had managed to capture the glow of happiness on their faces so well Jillian could hardly imagine a photograph showing it better.
Judging from the style of the wedding dress, which was pretty but of a fashion several decades older, the portrait had clearly been hanging there for some time. Seeing it, Jillian had no trouble understanding why Meredith had been inspired to open the place for weddings.
Then she thought of Courtney and Eric and how happy they had been, how happy they would have been on their wedding day, one that would never take place.
"This is the last owner of Sutton Hall, Jacob Sutton, and his wife, Kathleen, on their wedding day," Meredith explained, a touch of wistfulness in her voice.
"What happened to them?" Jillian asked. This was one area she didn't know much about, not having done much research on the previous owners.
"Sadly she passed away five years later. A car accident. The vehicle she was driving went off the road on the way up the mountain during a storm."
Looking at the woman's smiling face, Jillian felt a twinge of sadness. She'd been so happy. She'd had no idea what the future held for her. Just like Courtney.
"He continued living here at Sutton Hall the rest of his life. He never remarried, never really got over losing her. Right, Grace?"
The woman didn't respond, and Jillian wondered if she was even there anymore. She glanced back to find the housekeeper standing a few yards behind them, her steady gaze fixed on the portrait.
No, Jillian thought, not just on the portrait, but on the face of Jacob Sutton, her eyes burning with an unreadable, but intense look.
As if realizing that she hadn't answeredor that Jillian was watching herGrace met Jillian's gaze before slowly lowering her eyes. "That's right."
Returning her attention to the painting, Meredith let out a little sigh. "They may have only had five years together, but evidently they were happy ones. And afterward, he loved her so much he never thought of being with anyone else."
How sad, Jillian thought at the idea of the man living alone in this massive house for all those years. Though from the way Meredith had told the story, she had the feeling that wasn't the response she was supposed to have. She managed to say, "How romantic."
The comment echoing her own thoughts was the last thing Jillian expected to hear, and she turned her head in surprise. The statement hadn't come from Meredith, but from a masculine voice above them.
A man was striding down the stairs toward them, his eyes unmistakably pinned on her. He walked with an easy, confident grace, taking his time in both his approach and his study of her. He moved like he owned the place, very "Lord of the Manor."
Which was exactly who he was, of course.