Craven County Line

Craven County Line

C. Hope Clark

July 2023 $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-61026-223-1

The Craven County Mysteries, Book 3

Our PriceUS$17.95
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In the blink of an eye...

Quinn Sterling—part-time investigator and owner of Sterling Farms—expected the day to go well. Expected all of Craven County to put in an appearance at the much-anticipated, annual Fourth of July celebration on the farm grounds. Expected the temperature would hit hot-enough-to-peel-the-paint-off-a-pickup-truck.

What she did not expect was the appearance of a long-lost uncle and new cousin.

And she certainly never expected the county sheriff to seriously question her childhood friend, deputy Ty Jackson, as a suspect in the murder of his ex-wife Natalie in the next county over. When Ty is carted off mid-celebration by his boss and in front of his eight-year-old son Cole, Quinn realizes that she may be the only one willing to believe in his innocence regardless of damning evidence to the contrary.

With the murder out of her county, Quinn has no contacts to lean on. She has no standing in the investigation. What she can do is make sure Ty has the best defense attorney in the state while she finds a way to prove what her heart knows.

Even if that means crossing every line she's ever drawn for herself in pursuit of the real killer.

About the author: C. HOPE CLARK is author of The Carolina Slade Mystery Series, and The Craven County Mysteries as well as The Edisto Island Mysteries, all set in her home state of South Carolina. In her previous federal life, she performed administrative investigations and married the agent she met on a bribery investigation. She enjoys nothing more than editing her books on the back porch with him, overlooking the lake, with bourbons in hand. She can be found either on the banks of Lake Murray or Edisto Beach with one or two dachshunds in her lap.

"Plot twists with grit, and a little fried okra on the side. Truly an excep¬tional mystery writer."—Cindy Ervin Huff, BookBub Reviews on The Craven County Mysteries

"Badge of Edisto further establishes Clark's well-earned reputation as a master of the mystery genre."—Jonathan Haupt, coeditor, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy

Hope Clark's books have been honored as winners of the Epic Award, Silver Falcion Award, the Imaginarium Award, and the Daphne du Maurier Award.

"The ending is explosive and wild. More great Lowcountry crime fiction from Clark."—C. Brad Cox, Amazon Vine Voice Reviewer on Badge Of Edisto

Chapter 1

QUINN STERLING wiped a trickle of sweat off her temple and cursed herself for leaving sunglasses in the house, cursed twice for setting down her Sterling Banks ball cap someplace she couldn’t recall. Then she shielded her eyes and used her height to scan over the tops of heads, praying there were no complications before shutdown tonight. Almost a thousand people wandered Sterling Banks, and as much as this festival meant to the locals and the history of Craven County, she couldn’t help thinking about the cleanup and reseeding of her trampled grounds tomorrow. After filling in the ruts.

And it was damn hot despite her having twisted and fastened her un­ruly red curls atop her head.

She hadn’t had two seconds to breathe once they’d opened the farm’s gates to the Fourth of July public that morning. Time to stroll the crowd again for the umpteenth time. She must’ve walked ten miles already in her softest, most broken-in boots, not even caring about how worn and ragged they looked. Comfort trumped style today.

Everyone was welcome at Sterling Banks on this day, and she wished her daddy were still alive to see how she continued the summer tradition. He had handled this so much more smoothly than she did, but she did her best hosting in his stead. The older folks had the manners to speak of Graham, telling her how proud he’d be.

Hard to believe Jule, her nanny and subsequent goat herder on the farm, had had to talk her into continuing these affairs after he died.

Some lines were a dozen people deep at the assorted canopied booths, people she greeted, thanking each and every soul for coming. Odors of sugar, grease, and grilled meat filled the air, each smell better than the one before, emanating from canopies outlining three sides of the open ten-acre field, some plain white and others borrowed from assorted businesses in the nearby town of Jacksonboro. For instance, the Presley Funeral Home was well represented under one of its graveside canopies, passing out end-of-life brochures and free hand fans, alongside the Raines family who received equal billing and half the shade of the shared tent where they doled out slices of watermelon grown on their farm.

A few canopies couldn’t help but flaunt Clemson or the University of South Carolina, but this time of year the rivalry was an afterthought to the hot dogs, burgers, barbecue, fried catfish, or grilled cob corn served underneath. As long as there wasn’t a Georgia Bulldog tent, everyone was happy.

Three dozen canopies and fifty vendors, if you called them that. Nobody overcharged a crowd on Sterling Banks, and the affordability of the event made people come and feel appreciated. Her father taught her about civic obligation from the time she could walk.

For July and Christmas, two long-time rituals by the Sterling family, they opened a section of its three thousand acres for the county’s guests, and around Christmas, opened the pecan barn. As the biggest stretch of property in the county, the oldest employer with a history dating back to 1700, Sterling Banks served as a centerpiece for Craven County, a means to brag. Quinn’s great-grandfather originated this particular ritual for the farm’s workers, and as the plantation prospered, as workers invited more friends and families, Quinn’s father realized this was a way to promote Craven County and support its hard-working work ethic.

As the last heir of the oldest family in the oldest county in the blessed state of South Carolina, Quinn preserved that responsibility.

She loved the dirt, for sure, and couldn’t dream of selling an acre of it. Not with all those graves in the family cemetery watching. Not with the feel of her parents still in the house.

Bittersweet. So bittersweet. She’d given up an FBI career to come back and run this place... when someone murdered her almost perfect daddy. Fathers didn’t come any better, and it about killed her too when he died.

She’d known that private investigative work wouldn’t fill the void of leaving that career completely, but she’d gotten the license anyway. She had to in order not to feel so shackled to the farm. Worked like a charm except she hadn’t had a case since the whole school board incident six weeks ago. Because the farm took a lot of her time, she only wanted cases that piqued her interest, and those were hard to find in this small rural county.

Dragging her thoughts back to the here and now, Quinn finished her fourth circuit of many more to come and reached the front of the event again. She checked her phone out of habit more than anything else since she wore a radio on her belt to communicate on the farm. That one message from earlier this morning hung there unanswered, but nothing new. She was familiar with the caller but hadn’t the time or emotional investment to take this conversation today. She’d at least have to wait until the evening, when things died down. Most people understood what day this was and how busy she’d be, making Quinn even less inclined to take the message.

Back to the task at hand. Pickups and cars parked end to end on the front of the field, with overflow vehicles lining both sides of the long Sterling Banks drive. High school kids earned community service credits directing where to park under the watchful eye of a Craven County deputy.

Like Quinn, Jonah Proveaux, her beau and farm caretaker, walked the crowd, hunting how to assist the vendors, advising incoming drivers, diverting people who dared venture back into the orchard, deterring those nosy enough to see Quinn’s house up close. Last month Jonah had decided to run for school board in the fall. Since then, he’d reached uber popularity amongst teachers and parents, not to mention high school girls directing cars and making no attempt to hide flirting glances at him.

Quinn watched a young, long-legged brunette in denim cut-offs go almost weak in the knees at Jonah walking within reach of her. He never noticed. The driver she was supposed to direct, however, rolled down a window and hollered for guidance, jerking her back to attention.

Jonah continued toward Quinn, smiling at the sight of her instead. He held something in his hand. She sidestepped over a few yards to find a patch of shade under a nearby oak for the break.

He handed over the item. "Here’s your hat, m’lady.”

"Oh, dear Lord, bless you,” she said, meaning it. "Hold it a sec.”

She undid her hair, which almost exploded from confinement, then pony-tailed it up to go through the back tab. "There.” She shifted the bill around until the hat fit. "Thought I was going to melt out here.”

"Sugar melts, Princess.”

She gave him a saccharin grin. "You saying I’m sweet?”

"No.” Flashing his self-assured grin, he tapped her brim. "A lot more adjectives come to mind other than sweet.”

As though leaning forward to avoid eager ears, she acted as if she had something to say then darted in for a quick peck on the lips. "I know those words. Shame I can’t bring them more to life right now.”

He pecked her back and hung in close. "Who says they have any­thing to do with sex?”

She hung there, a bare inch between them. "Who said I meant sex?”

"Owwwww!” came the catcall from about ten feet away. "I can feel the heat from here!” One of the Sterling Banks grove tenders.

Jonah pulled back first, a grin still in place, and hollered over at the guy. "It’s July, Nolan. Of course, it’s hot.”

The hired hand strode off laughing, not that he hadn’t seen his two employers engage in a little PDA before.

Jonah ran a crooked finger under her chin. "Meet me later.”

"You’ll be too tired to romp.”

"Who says I’m talking about sex?” he mocked and strode off with a chuckle that turned quickly into a wave at a neighbor who he trotted over to pat on the back and welcome.

Quinn stood still, admiring this man who’d arrived on the farm as a toddler with his mother, Jule, who’d originally been hired to manage a household and became much more than a housekeeper when Quinn’s mom died. Jonah had promptly assigned himself the role of her pro­tector. Not until this year had she been able to see him as more than a brother.

Way more than a brother.

Wake up, Quinn. Theres work to do.

Before spotting Jonah, she’d almost reached the red canopy, the one with Jackson Hole Diner on its flaps, and she wasn’t passing it by. Lenore Jackson closed her restaurant for this shindig and had donated her cooking talents on this day each and every summer for as long as Quinn Sterling had breathed Craven County air. The scent of her fried okra would’ve made Quinn drool if she hadn’t already eaten two paper cones full.

In her branded red apron, name embroidered across the bib, Lenore tended two vats of deep friers on stands with fans in the corner keeping her sane in the heat. She could outcook everyone here, but today she tended fried okra and fried dill pickles, letting other venues fill in the rest.

Quinn slid between tables and adjusted a fan to hit Lenore better. The cook caught her steady perspiration on a headband, red, of course, and had tied one of several iced kerchiefs around her neck. A cooler un­der the table held more.

"Saw you swapping spit with that boy,” Lenore said. "Not sure that needs to be aired out here.”

"Everybody loves it, Momma,” Quinn said, cherishing this woman who’d been the other woman who’d stepped up when her own mother died. "Don’t you get too hot. Where’s Ty? He ought to be helping you.”

"He’s coming,” Lenore said. "Give him time. He’s got responsibil­ities.”

Now a Craven County deputy, Lenore’s son had grown up beside Quinn from the time they were both five. His dad had worked for hers until Ty’s dad died from cancer when Ty was fifteen, which pushed Lenore to open her diner. But Quinn wasn’t the boss’s daughter, and Ty wasn’t the child of a foreman. Not to each other, and whether anyone else thought it, they dare not say. From naps on the porch to swimming in their underwear, they both had Edisto River in their blood and pecan dust in their bones, their feet having evolved to climb any tree in the grove.

Jonah, Quinn, and Ty... with her ever in the middle. She’d kissed them both in her day, and dating Jonah had caused her a lot of personal grief in having made a choice, but she’d made it, with Ty’s permission, no less. Not that the big man didn’t harbor feelings for her.

She didn’t like thinking about that.

Quinn grabbed a napkin and wiped moisture off her own forehead and above her upper lip. "You got something to drink? You gotta stay hydrated in this heat.”

"I’m good, honey. Go tend to your people.” Lenore rested a hand on her hip. "And leave that poor boy of yours alone today.”

"He’s not a boy, Lenore.”

"You ain’t telling me nothing,” she said, going back to shoveling more cones of okra, inserting the cones in a specialized box with holes bored the right size."Girl, I got work to do, and so do you. Go on.”

"Yes, ma’am.” Quinn turned the napkin over and wiped the back of her neck before tossing it in a bin. There’d been hotter Fourths than this one, and there’d been cooler ones, but this morning started at eighty degrees and had tapped ninety by noon.

She returned to the crowd, but in scanning the parking area, she spotted her familiar buddy. A tall, broad man her age, he strolled up still in uniform, his wide hand atop the head of an eight-year-old boy clearly destined to be tall and broad, too.

Quinn stooped in front of the child. "Cole, my man, you are sprout­ing right before my eyes. What’ve you been up to?”

"Growing!” His grin showed front rabbit teeth a bit big for his mouth. "I stretch every morning to grow faster.”

She busted a laugh and pecked him on the cheek, the boy winking in return. The kid was way more the flirt than his father, who popped him lightly on the back of the head to behave.

She peered up at Ty, understanding now the responsibility that Lenore had referenced back under the canopy. This was Ty’s weekend with his son. She rose back up. "I was wondering where you were.”

Ty Jackson patted the top of his son’s head, his hand never having left. He was a deputy. He knew what happened to kids in crowds, though Quinn doubted anyone in these parts would dare touch a hair on that particular child.

But he was tense, not wanting to let loose of Cole, his crowd-con­trol gaze at work across the sea of people. No smile. Ty almost always smiled.

"You all right?” she asked.

"Had a little dust up with Nat,” he said. "I was late picking him up.” His voice usually carried a gentleness but from a deep well of a place—a voice versatile enough to make a culprit stop in his tracks or a victim feel absolutely safe. Today he sounded terse, anxious... wary.

Quinn didn’t like discussing the mother in front of Cole, and, frankly, spoke little of her with the father. Ty and his ex hadn’t been on good terms since Quinn had left the FBI and returned to Sterling Banks. Too much fiction about Quinn and Ty having grown up together, too much whispering. She loved him dearly, and if she and Jonah hadn’t found their way to each other.... Who knew? It was damn hard to take three lifelong buds and turn them into two plus one. Her heart had belonged to both for so damn long.

She noticed tightness in his jaws, pain in his eyes. "Wanna talk?” she asked. "We can sneak away into the manor.”

"Not now,” he said. "But later we gotta talk.”

Sounded ominous. "Sure. Right now Lenore’s looking for you, though. Your momma’s working her butt off today.”

"Granny?” Cole asked, peering straight up at his dad.

Quinn turned and pointed to the tent three tents down. "Go to the red one and no place else.”

Ty released the child, which triggered Cole to take off. Ty kept an eye on him while continuing to talk. Cole arrived to the smothering arms of his grandmother, and Ty dropped his look to Quinn. "All okay out here? Seen anything odd?”

She was still concerned about him. "No problems. Thus far, anyway.” She took his arm. "You’re awful disturbed about something. Was it that bad with Natalie or is this about something amiss at work? You know, something I might want to know about?”

He gave her his half grin, used to her habit of picking law enforcement business out of him. "I don’t have to update you about the sheriff’s department.”

"Yeah,” she said, grinning back. "But you do. How else are we going to keep Uncle Larry in line? Where is he, by the way? He may not own the place, but he has a reputation to uphold. Since when does he miss the opportunity to flaunt being a Sterling?”

Her uncle had been sheriff since his thirties. The same uncle who’d lost his Sterling Banks inheritance in a divorce, which her father had salvaged by paying off the ex. Uncle Larry ran the sheriff’s office about as well as he’d managed his marriage... and as poorly as he’d hunted his brother’s killer. Quinn solved the murder and, to this day, couldn’t be in the same room with her uncle without a spat.

"He’s not here?” Ty asked, peering around as if Quinn might be mistaken. He understood as well as she did that the sheriff loved taking credit for a Sterling event. Forget the fact he’d lost the right and every­one knew it. He was still the top cop and was closer to being Sterling royalty that anyone else. They were a small family.

"Maybe something came up,” she said, though Larry usually chose strutting at events over doing real work any day. He had deputies to delegate that to.

Ty seemed exceptionally attentive to the crowd, though he had to know eighty percent of them by name. Scouting over Quinn’s head, Ty’s expression darkened, then his eyes widened. She went to turn only for hands to cover her eyes.

"Guess who. One try,” came the voice.

She gasped.

Then she spun, breaking free, and wrapped her long tanned and freckled arms around a man she hadn’t seen since her daddy’s funeral."Uncle Archie!”

She hugged him tight. He hadn’t the height of her father and Uncle Larry, but that still put him at her level. Short brushed six foot in the Sterling family.

"When did you get in?” she squealed, hugging him again.

He kissed her on the cheek. "Red eye put us into Charleston about two hours ago. Baby Q, you look adorable. Better than...”

"The last time you saw me. Well, anything would look better than then, Uncle Archie. But you... look the same. You haven’t aged a year.”

Yet she lied. An ample supply of gray ran through what used to be thick, wavy blond hair, and he seemed leaner. More crow’s feet around what she deemed the prettiest blue eyes on the planet, but more sagging under them than she remembered.

Guess they could both lie about each other’s looks.

A child around six peered from around his thigh, then stepped out as if taking the stage. She brushed her T-shirt down and tipped her chin once in a silent hello.

Humored by the girl, also blond and also tall, Quinn threw a puzzled glance at her uncle before lowering herself to a less intimidating height. "Hello there,” Quinn said. "And who might you be?”

"Your cousin,” she said, holding out her hand, purposely drawing upon a practiced speech. "My name is Glory Bea Sterling. Nice to meet you, Cousin Quinn.”

Quinn took the offered hand with the long fingers of a Sterling and would’ve melted if shock hadn’t taken over first. "Nice to meet you, Glory. Love the name, by the way.”

"Yours is pretty, too.”

Standing, Quinn attempted to maintain a soft smile for the child’s sake, but it was damn hard to do and still hide the surprise. "Um, when did I become a cousin?”

"I’m six,” Glory answered before Archie could. "I’ll be seven in eight days.”

The girl was bright.

Unapologetically, Archie spoke with the pride of a father. "She’s glorious, isn’t she? Thus, the name,” he said, gazing down with love as Glory met his look with a see-how-good-I-did smile. "Patrick and I used a surrogate. We had our sperm mixed rather than one of us choosing to be the donor.”

Running her palm across the thick yellow curls cut short in Shirley Temple style, Quinn said, "Clearly your swimmers won.”

"Without a doubt,” he said. "Sorry, but there never seemed a good time to tell you. She was due any time when Graham passed, and you had enough on your plate. That and we wanted to make sure everything went okay. It was a difficult birth, and she had some early issues for a few months. And after the way I left, thinking I’d never return, I just kept finding excuses to avoid letting Craven County back into my world. I’m sorry, Miss Q. I really am, but I’m here now.”

Quinn should be peeved at her uncle, but staring at Glory, she knew now was not the time. She remembered how good he had been with her as a child. Their one-on-one luncheons. His listening to her when she was pissed at the world. She’d assumed he would never father a child but look at him now. It suited him.

She ran her arm through Ty’s, drawing him close. "You remember Ty?” she said.

Archie reached a hand. "Of course, I do. Man, you grew into a beast, didn’t you?”

If Ty’s complexion wasn’t so dark, his blush would’ve glowed as red as Quinn’s mane. "Good upbringing,” he replied. "Good seeing you again. How long are you sticking around?”

"Wait.” Quinn realized they were missing another guest."Speaking of Patrick, where is he?”

"They live in different places now, Aunty Quinn.”

She loved how Glory called her Aunty, with a Y. A better ring than cousin. "I see,” she said.

"It’s okay,” Glory continued. "We’ve been doing it for years.”

Which brought a slight scowl from Quinn. "Years?”

This time Archie scratched the back of his neck. "One year is more like it, but guess we have some catching up to do.”

A tad stung at the revelations, Quinn wondered what else might be amiss. His appearance was so out of the blue. "Yes,” she said."I believe we do have some catching up to do.” But now wasn’t the time. This was an event. A Sterling event. "I hope you’re not too terribly tired, because as a Sterling, you can help me greet these people.”

Archie took in a deep breath scanning the grounds. He hadn’t been much of a Sterling legacy fan and had severed ties years ago for reasons Quinn had never fully understood. "Not counting the funeral, it’s been over fifteen years, Quinn.”

"Times are different now, Uncle. And those who have a problem with you can be escorted off the property. You hear me? Hey, I’ll introduce you, if you like.”

"I’d appreciate it,” he said, then stilled as his attention focused past her. "Guess we can test things first with him.”

Quinn turned. Uncle Larry, the Craven County Sheriff himself, made his way in uniform across the field, two deputies at his side. She didn’t like how he looked. "He’s got a burr up his ass, Ty,” she said. "Any idea why?”

"Shit,” he murmured back, making Quinn wonder why. "If I get called out to something,” he said, "would you make sure—”

"Cole can stay here until you get done,” she said, giving a playful twist to one of Glory’s curls. "Besides, he has someone he needs to meet.”

Sheriff Larry Sterling reached them. Deputy Harrison, her least favorite deputy, stood to his left. She could read her uncle like headlines in a tell-all gossip mag, and this was no social call. For a second, she wondered who had died. Craven County was small enough for her to at least know the name of whomever it might be. Car accident, drowning, overturned tractor....

"Ty,” the sheriff said, avoiding looking at Quinn and giving his long-lost brother the bare minimum of a glance. "I need you to come with me.”

Ty stiffened, a flash of panic in his eyes. Quinn touched his back for support. "What’s going on, Uncle Larry?”

"Never you mind, Niece. Ty, please, son. Just come along.”

Quinn’s radar went up at her uncle’s cryptic behavior. Ty was the senior deputy, the closest to a detective the SO had. "Wait a minute.”

"Stay out of this, Quinn,” said the sheriff.

He hated Quinn’s curiosity in his business. He hated more that she could solve a case quicker than anyone on his force. He did his damned­est to hide Craven County crime from her to avoid her judge­ment, one of the many controversies that drove a wedge between them.

"Just tell me, Sheriff,” Ty said, his voice lowered. He’d tell Quinn later anyway, and they all knew it.

"It’s Natalie,” Larry said. "She was found dead in her apartment about forty-five minutes ago.”

Quinn’s head did the math. A jolt of fear coursed through her.

"The Colleton County police need to speak to you, son.” He started to reach out and take Ty’s arm and thought better of it. "Afraid I’m to escort you to Walterboro. A witness says you were the last person to see her alive.”

A weakness shot through Quinn. She almost reached for her phone and that unheard message, but now wasn’t the time, was it? Any message Natalie left in Quinn’s voice mail would be moot now, wouldn’t it?

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