An unsolved murder and a cold case
are hitting too close to home…
When Willa Tate presents Detective Kenneth Gray with a buried box containing evidence of a thirty-five-year-old crime, he knows his newly formed task force will leave no stone unturned to find answers. But it’s Willa’s life on the line when Kenneth uncovers a connection between the cold case and the unsolved murder of his wife. Protecting Willa and righting past wrongs pits the dogged cop against a killer desperate to silence the truth forever.
From Harlequin Intrigue: Seek thrills. Solve crimes. Justice served.
Discover more action-packed stories in The Saving Kelby Creek Series. All books are stand-alone with uplifting endings but were published in the following order:
Book 1: Uncovering Small Town Secrets
Book 2: Searching for Evidence
Book 3: Surviving the Truth
Release date: August 24, 2021
Print pages: 256
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Surviving the Truth
Tyler Anne Snell
“The conclusion I’ve come to is an easy one, even if it is a frustrating one.” Detective Lovett dropped the box on the sheriff’s desk. It landed with a notable thud. “We need help—and I’m talking specific help, not just me and an unlimited supply of coffee.”
Sheriff Chamblin let out a breath that sank his shoulders and protruded his belly. He was at his desk but wasn’t happy about it. He was a man who liked to pound the pavement, not pour over paperwork. Plus, with the way things had ebbed and flowed from quiet to downright loud in Kelby Creek throughout the last year or so, it was hard to feel at ease anywhere, most notably behind a desk.
So Chamblin hadn’t been in the best of moods before the detective had come in and now, with Lovett’s conclusion, he feared it wasn’t going to get any better.
Chamblin spelled out the obvious. “You want the task force.”
Lovett nodded. “Normally a place so small wouldn’t need one, but given Kelby Creek’s history, there’re a lot more cold cases that we need to look into. Ones that we thought were resolved but weren’t. Ones that we thought we had the right person for but—”
“But we don’t,” Chamblin finished. He sighed again and motioned to the box. “We have enough of these cases for an actual task force? What does that even entail? Two people? Four? How would you have handled this in Seattle?”
The detective thumbed at his wedding band and shrugged.
“In Seattle we would have had more than enough people to switch their gears, but here?” He thought a moment. “I’m going to suggest that eventually we have two people but, considering we don’t have people lining up to fill the department at the moment, I’d say try for one first. See how that goes. Worst case, it’s a glorified trial period. Best case, it does what the rest of us are trying to do.”
Chamblin snorted. “And what’s that exactly?”
Detective Lovett smiled but didn’t return the sarcasm.
“Make the town trust this department again, one good deed at a time.” He tapped the box, his expression turning serious. “They’re not the only ones who deserve justice.”
The sheriff couldn’t disagree.
“Whoever we hire, they’ll need to be above reproach,” he said. “Because if they’re anything but trustworthy and straightforward, this town will eat them alive. It’s one thing to do right by Kelby Creek when things pop up. It’s another to dive into the past and muck around. Whoever does that is going to have their work more than cut out for them.”
Lovett nodded. Then he pulled out a piece of paper with a name and number written on it. He passed it over to the sheriff. “That is why I think we should reach out to him.”
Chamblin had to read the name twice. Just so he knew he wasn’t mistaken. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
Detective Lovett shrugged. “Find me a more motivated individual and I’ll recommend them instead.”
After a moment, Chamblin admitted defeat.
“It’ll take some talking to get him back into law enforcement after what happened. And I’m not sure talking will even do anything. We talk about righting the wrongs of this department’s past, but there’s not a thing we can do to right the wrong of what happened to him.”
Lovett’s expression softened.
“He’s good people and, no matter how life beats good people down, they always find a time to stand right back up.” He thumped the piece of paper on the desk twice. “He’ll take the job. I bet my badge on it.”
There was only one way to find out.
The sheriff picked up the phone and dialed the number. It rang as he traced the name on the paper for the third time.
Kenneth Gray was either about to be intrigued or really, really angry.
Willa Tate wouldn’t have found the box at all had she not been trying to be polite.
See, it was a curse—being polite—one she’d been saddled with from a young girl and was still burdened with at the age of thirty-one. Like a bad perm or a wine stain sitting on a white blouse for too long, being polite wasn’t just something she decided to do on a daily basis. It was something she had to do.
It was in her DNA.
So when Missy Frye called the office in a fuss, worried over her husband and why he wasn’t yet home, Willa glanced around the empty space and nodded to no one but herself.
“I can run out to the site to see if he’s already gone for the day,” she offered, looking for her purse.
Normally it hung on a hook next to her office door, but today she’d gone for fun lunch and, after fun lunch, her purse had a way of landing anywhere but where it was supposed to. Thanks in no small part to her friend and coworker Ebony Keller.
Fun lunch often included a good deal of gossip, even if no one had asked for it originally. And gossip in small-town Kelby Creek? Well, that wasn’t something you just left at the lunch table.
Ebony had hustled into the office, pulling on Willa’s side as she’d hurriedly whispered about the newest piece of juice in town. That meant her purse had probably landed near where Ebony had dropped her two cents on what was happening over at the Dawn County Sheriff’s Department.
“Oh, Willa, that would be amazing of you,” Missy nearly yelled back, her accent a brand of Scarlet O’Hara’s in Gone With the Wind.
Willa’s ran a bit deeper and with a lot more syrup. Her family had been in the Deep South town of Kelby Creek for four generations. It was a running joke that by the time Willa had a kid and then that kid had their own, the poor soul would have an accent so thick that no one would be able to understand a word.
“I normally wouldn’t even call up there,” Missy added, “but Dave usually answers his phone and now it’s going straight to voice mail.”
“I bet he’s just lost track of time is all.” Willa tried to assure her. “Give me five minutes and I’ll have him calling with an apology on the tip of his tongue.”
Missy showered Willa with a few more thank-yous, and even threw in a “Tell your sister I said hi,” then the phone was in the cradle and Willa was shaking her head.
She dug into her purse, which had wound up halfway beneath the worn love seat that had catered to many a tired worker, and pulled her personal cell phone out to make sure no one was missing her.
Willa sighed at the lack of notifications and locked up the office with a grumble. Up until a few months ago, she would have had one to ten messages from Landon. But, she supposed, it made sense that they would stop on account of his new—and quick-as-a-flare-up-in-an-unattended-grease-pan—engagement.
Not that Willa was holding that against him.
She had been the one to call it quits after all.
You also would have married him had he asked, she pointed out to herself.
Willa shook her head. “No time for feeling any type of way on that,” she said aloud. “Now’s the time for finding Dave.”
Kelby Creek, Alabama, was caught in an awkward way lately. Mostly it had to do with the weather. There was enough humidity to keep Willa’s blond hair big and unruly but enough chill to make her wish she’d worn something other than a short-sleeved blouse. Or at least had brought a rain jacket with her. She could smell the rain in the air even if the darkening sky was free of clouds. Late October in south Alabama was a mixed bag when it came to knowing what to be grumpy about when you stepped outside. Today was no exception.
The second way Kelby Creek felt a bit strange was a lot more subtle and, if you weren’t a local, harder to pin down. Willa had come to town when she was a teen and had, somehow, managed to not leave it since. She had some feelings on that front but her time in the out-of-pocket place had given her a sensitivity to it. Like most locals, she’d been upset at what had happened two years ago. Hurt. Scared.
But now? Now, there was something in the air. Change.
Was it good? Or was it more of the same?
She couldn’t tell and most locals couldn’t decide, either.
They felt the wind blowing, in a manner of speaking, and no matter which way it would eventually go, it was there all the same.
But, for Willa, she didn’t think she would have to ponder on any of that anytime soon. In the grand scheme of town, she wasn’t exactly top-tier important. She worked as an office manager for a construction company that catered to all of Dawn County, lived in the garage apartment of her younger sister and husband’s house, and had a five-year plan that she’d already extended twice. Willa wasn’t the kind of woman to be a part of the important things—the things that made ripples and waves. She was more of the person who watched the troublemakers throw the rocks into the water in the first place.
It was her lot in life and she’d accepted it. Accepted it all the way to the north side of town and right onto a makeshift lot where their workers had been parking to walk to the land they were prepping. Eventually, the lot would be bulldozed, flattened and smoothed. Then it would be turned into a small set of town houses. Right now, there were still a few trees, weeds and dirt mounds interspersed with the construction equipment.
Willa got out of her car and took in most of the area without having to do much. Dave’s truck wasn’t around and neither was he. Still, Willa had known the man for years and the possibility of him leaving his phone behind at a site was up there with a pretty dang good chance. So she decided to stay polite and do a quick pass over the lot, all while switching her heels for her rain boots and bringing out the light of her phone.
Dave was probably on his way home now after chatting too long with Marvin after work. He’d get an earful from Missy for sure, but maybe Willa could soften the blow by dropping off his misplaced phone.
The first half of the lot still had a few patches of mud from last night’s rain. It squished against her boots and made her hurry so she could minimize how much gunk she’d have to wash off when she got home.
Her trek brought her to the back end of the lot, which still had some trees not yet bulldozed, with half attention. When the light of her phone split between a tree, an old stump, and a half-buried rectangle, Willa moved over a few steps, passing it off as a wayward toolbox.
But then, why was it partially buried? Even with a heavy rain, it wouldn’t sink underground.
So Willa went back, out of curiosity, already assuming it was some other construction-related thing.
However, it wasn’t.
Willa knelt next to the wooden box. Her light showed it was worn, with cracks and matted dirt and mud. Some of the box looked a bit crushed and the metal clasp on the front was off the hinges. She propped her phone up against the tree stump and used both hands to free the box from the dirt. Not heavy enough that she couldn’t move it, it definitely required two hands.
“You better not be some kind of Jumanji game where I get cursed by opening you,” Willa muttered to the box.
It had been a joke.
A silly little thing to say in the dark to herself.
Yet, once she lifted the top, Willa’s veins filled with ice.
“Oh my God!”
NOVEMBER BROUGHT IN late tropical storms to Southern Alabama and, with the second, an almost oppressive humidity followed directly by a blanket cold. That was why Kenneth Gray came into the Dawn County Sheriff’s Department with his own haul in tow. It was less “make you sweat, cuss, and wish you lived someplace where the seasons stayed in their respective lanes” and more of his only chance of surviving the day.
It was Monday morning and Kenneth entered through the back of the building after swiping his card. He dropped his coffee cup on his desk and the pack of sinus meds next to it. He’d also brought something else that had nothing to do with the headache brewing in the back of his head. That was also why he’d hustled behind closed doors to his desk and not taken any time to talk about the weekend.
That “something else” knew the drill and whipped under the desk to the bed he’d already taken the time to set up his first week on the job. If he had been working anywhere else, he was sure it would be grounds for a firing.
Yet Kelby Creek had been forced to become forgiving. Along with the interim sheriff and the department that served it.
Plus, it wasn’t like he brought his dog to work every day.
“Good girl, Delilah,” Kenneth said to the three-year-old golden retriever. He pulled a chew toy from his bag and tossed it next to her as she settled.
In Kenneth’s opinion, she was the only thing that fit nicely in the room. Everything else around them was mild chaos. The desk that butted his didn’t have a chair behind it, but its top was covered in paperwork that had been shifted over from his side. There were boxes and filing cabinets in the room crowding both, and the smallest of placards on the door that still read Storage.
It wasn’t supposed to be an office but it had become his.
Just as the cases stacked around him had.
A knock on the door had Delilah sit at attention though Kenneth knew she wouldn’t move unless he said so.
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