DECODING THE TRUTH
Kansas City Crime Lab #2
Copyright ©2022 by Julie Miller
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Enterprises
After the end of the story...
This crime lab tech has enemies.
And one wants her dead…
Two weeks later…
Chelsea shivered inside her sweater. The courtroom bench was hard as a church pew, and it felt like the city had turned on the air conditioning, despite the freezing winter air outside. Her gaze was fixed on the door leading into the antechamber where a guard would lead out the man she was here to testify against—her former team leader, Dennis Hunt. A walking, talking poster boy for sexual harassment in the workplace, he’d abused his authority over her and had taken his harassment one step too far. Yes, that nightmare had finally thrust her into Buck’s arms. But she knew better than most how hard it was to shake a nightmare. “What’s wrong, Chels?” Buck’s deeply resonant voice was a whisper against her ear. He tightened his grip on her fingers where they rested atop his thigh beside her. “Talk to me.” “Dennis will be able to see me.” Smarmy arrogance followed by intimidation tactics when he didn’t get his way were her former boss’s stock and trade. And though she’d come a long way from the vulnerable young woman she’d once been, she knew her triggers. Unfortunately, so did Dennis. “I’ll be able to see him.” “Not until you’re ready to.” Buck touched two fingers to his cheeks, right below the handsome, careworn laugh lines that framed his eyes. “Focus right here, sweetheart. Hunt can’t get to you. Not today. Not ever. Not while I’m here. Besides, I called in some reinforcements.” “Reinforcements?” She knew the man lived on his phone unless he purposely set it aside to spend time with her. When had he done this? Besides, they’d spent a lot of time together these past two weeks, filling out police reports, tying up loose ends on their missing persons investigation. She’d closed the information breaches Trouble had sicced on the cyberworld, while Buck spent some time getting reacquainted with his son. Each night, Buck had walked her dogs, ordered her cats to behave, redressed the wound on her arm, held her securely throughout the night and kissed her senseless on more than one occasion. He’d even showed her she was capable of being intimate with a man and had experienced absolute pleasure and mutual satisfaction from lovemaking for the first time in her life. “Did you order people from your security team to be here?” “Even better.” Chelsea turned her head at the chatter coming from the back of the courtroom. Her best friend, Lexi, hurried down the aisle and leaned in to trade hugs. “Scoot over. You’re not the only one who has to testify against that low-life devil scum Dennis Hunt today. We’ll be each other’s moral support.” As she slid closer to Buck’s side, Chelsea raised her gaze to the black-haired cop behind Lexi and smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t be alone.” “Hey, kiddo.” Aiden dropped a kiss on top of her head before narrowing his gaze at Buck. “How’s she holding up?” “Like the champ she is.” Chelsea arched her eyebrows above the rims of her sensibly monochromatic glasses. “Is Blue…?” “Blue, Hier. Platz” Aiden’s partner, a Belgian Malinois and unofficial crime lab mascot, squeezed into the row and lay down at her feet on Aiden’s command. “You think I could keep him from his favorite person on the day when she needs him most?” Chelsea reached down to pet the dog, who could be a fierce protector or a furry couch potato, depending on the situation. “Thank you.” Aiden took a seat beside Lexi and draped a protective arm around her shoulder. Then the doors at the back opened, and a whole parade of people walked down the aisle. “What…?” She glanced back at Buck and saw him subtly directing traffic. His son, Clark, and his boyfriend, Art, sat on the bench in front of her. Clark’s broad shoulders and Art’s puffy man bun effectively blocked her view of the prosecutor’s table. Then she turned to the distinctive soft squeak of metal as Grayson Malone walked up the aisle—walked!—on his prosthetic legs, using his crutches to balance himself. He was a tall man, even when he used his wheelchair. But walking in on two false legs put him well over six-feet tall. Chelsea reached out to squeeze his wrist as he supported himself by grabbing the back of the bench and lowering himself into the seat in front of Lexi.
Finally, a large shadow fell over her. Jackson Dobbs nodded at her before sitting on the end of the bench next to Grayson. Nearly six and a half feet tall and built like a defensive lineman, Jackson never said much. But his nod to her spoke volumes about the friendships she’d cultivated among her coworkers at the crime lab.
Zoe Stockmann and her father, Brian, in his KCPD uniform took seats beside Shane Duvall in the row behind her. Rufus King, Buck’s best friend and former partner at KCPD, slowly walked in with her lifelong pal, the grandfatherly Vinnie Goring. Tears stung her eyes when even the crime lab director, Mac Taylor, took a seat in the very front row.
“They’re all here for you, sweetheart,” Buck whispered into her ear. “You’re surrounded by the people who love you. You’re safe.” Chelsea nodded and snuggled into Buck’s side, grateful for the stability he’d given her chaotic life, loving him for the understanding and compassion he showed her every day. Nestled amongst her friends, she watched the assistant district attorney, Kenna Parker-Watson, walk in. She winked at Chelsea before taking her seat and disappearing from sight.
When the defendant’s door opened, she saw only the top of the guard’s head. She couldn’t see the man who’d assaulted her or his attorney, thanks to the wall of people in front of her. She exhaled a deep breath and realized she wasn’t shaking anymore. She could do this. She could recount her story of assault and blackmail, and answer any question put to her. She was more than a computer geek. More than an orphan from an abusive childhood. She was a proud, integral member of the Kansas City Crime Lab. She helped solve crimes. Helped put the bad guys away. She’d put her former supervisor away for his crimes, too.
Because she wasn’t alone. Not anymore. She had Buck. He was her safe place. He owned her heart, and she trusted that he would always keep it safe. She finally had a family, maybe an unconventional one, but this was her tribe, where she belonged, where she finally had a safe, supportive home. And it was Buck who helped her understand she was valued and loveable and wanted, just as she was, quirks and hyper-active brain cells and rescue projects and all. When her name was called, she squeezed Buck’s hand before standing tall and making her way to the witness box. When she was done, she even looked Dennis Hunt in his sad, hate-filled eyes and breezed right on past him to take her seat within the shelter of Buck’s arm. There were other witnesses. Other painful testimony to sit through. But by the end of the day, the jury filed back in after a short deliberation and the judge read the verdict out loud. “Guilty. On all counts.”
Once the judge had left, Dennis was taken away in handcuffs, and the courtroom was dismissed. Buck hugged her tightly against his chest and she leaned into his strength and inhaled his wonderful, piney scent. She was emotionally and mentally exhausted. But she also felt freer, stronger, ready to move on with her life.
A hugger by nature, she spent several minutes in the hallway outside the courtroom saying thank-you and trading hugs, even with big ol’ Jackson and her boss, Mac. She might have ignored a few protocols, but they weren’t at work, they’d just closed a painful chapter in their lives, and they all accepted her for who she was—brilliant, big-hearted, socially awkward and one their own.
Once everyone had gone their separate ways, Chelsea latched on to Buck’s hand and walked with him out into the brisk November evening toward the parking lot across the street.
She paused on the courthouse steps, closed her eyes and tipped her nose to chilly damp air and inhaled a cleansing breath. When her eyes popped open, she found herself looking straight into Buck’s warm brown eyes. He was worried about the impact of the day on her, she could tell. But she wound her fingers into the lapels of his wool coat and smiled. “I really need you to marry me.” Although he arched an eyebrow at her unexpected revelation, he didn’t look as shocked by the pronouncement as she’d expected.
She smoothed her fingers down the nubby wool and bravely held his gaze. “If I don’t know that you’re going to be there for me, to hold me, to share a phone call or text, just to see your strong presence sitting out there in the court room, knowing you’ve got my back—I don’t know how I’m going to get through life without that. Without you.”
There. She’d poured out her heart to him.
His response was to thread his fingers beneath her hair and cup the nape of her neck. Then he pulled her onto her toes and kissed her very, very thoroughly. She willingly gave him everything he asked for, and when he pulled away, her glasses were steamed up, his coat was wrinkling inside her tight fists, and his eyes had darkened with the shadows of emotion that still often eluded her understanding.
He pried her fingers from his coat, grasped his hand in hers and pulled her into a quick step beside him as he led her across the street to his truck. “Come with me.”
Oh, Lord, the man could kiss. Not that she had a lot of experience in that department, but even Buck’s gentle kisses to her forehead had never failed to ignite a fire inside her. But when he took her lips like he just had, claimed her mouth, seduced her with little more than that wicked clever tongue of his, Chelsea went weak in the knees. Her lady parts all stood up and demanded the same attention.
But what was the urgency here? Was he anxious to get them to a more private place to resume the kiss? Had she embarrassed him by speaking her heart on a public sidewalk where others could overhear? Did he have an appointment he was late for? Was he cold?
“Did I just screw up? You know I say what I’m thinking, especially when my emotions are all over the place. There’s not much of a filter on this mouth.” Buck opened the passenger door of his truck for her, then wrapped his hands around her waist and lifted her when she didn’t immediately climb inside. “Are you mad at me? Why did you kiss me like that if you’re mad?”
He started the engine and got the heat going before he reached across her to open the glove compartment. He pulled out a small gray cloth bag and sat back behind the steering wheel before he spoke. “I’m not mad.”
“You know how much I like kissing you.” Chelsea licked her lips and he groaned. “You are one of a kind, woman. Always a surprise.” His voice was as gruff as ever, but she thought she detected a spark of amusement in his whiskey brown eyes.
Chelsea grimaced. “Do you like surprises?”
He pulled a small, cube-shaped leather box from the bag. Was that… a ring box? Her eyes got big.
“Old school alpha male, remember?” He poked his thumb to his chest. “I wanted to do the asking.” Chelsea clapped her hand over her mouth, so she didn’t shout out “Yes!” and let him talk while he opened the box and pulled out a beautifully simple square-cut diamond set in a wide gold-nugget band. “But I have the feeling that you and I are always going to have our own way of doing things.” He tossed the bag and box onto the dash while she swiped away her tears so that she could watch every moment of this once in a lifetime conversation. “You gave me the greatest gift I could ask for.”
“Your heart.” Buck reached for her left hand. She felt his thumb rubbing gently across her knuckles, but she couldn’t tear her gaze away from the promise in his eyes. “Yes, you gave me back my son. But you brought love back into my life. I love you. I want to see your smile every morning, and I want to feel you in my arms every night. I don’t care what kind of menagerie we have. If you want kids, we’ll make ‘em, and I’ll be the old fart out at the football field or the band concert, but I will be there. Or we can adopt kids or foster them or have a bunch of rescue pets or whatever makes you happy. Because you make me happy. Will you marry me?” Chelsea sobbed as her emotions overwhelmed her. “Damn it, woman, you were blubbering when I first realized I cared about you.” He wiped the tears from her cheeks with the pad of his thumb. “You’re killing me here. Is this going to be a thing?”
“Yes, you’ll marry me? Or yes, you’re going to cry at every emotional thing?”
He arched an eyebrow. “You’ll probably marry me?”
“Put the damn ring on, Buck!”
He was laughing as he finally slipped the ring onto her finger. Chelsea crawled across the center console and threw her arms around his neck, planting her lips on Buck’s and kissing the stuffing out of him. Buck pushed his seat back and pulled her onto his lap to turn the kiss into a decadent, leisurely celebration of their love.
He pulled back for a moment and growled against her lips. “Just to be clear—”