May 20, 2104
Tara Jean Dobbs was a Texas police officer until her friend Lucy Caldwell almost died on her watch. She’s since left the force, left Dobbs Hollow, and vowed to never let a loved one down again. So when her best friend Andrea joins a seemingly harmless spiritual cult—only to disappear without a trace—Tara decides to find out what happened by becoming one of the Chosen herself.
Five months later, no one’s heard from Tara, and FBI Agent Jacob Nolan is going after her. Taking a false identity, Jacob finds it surprisingly easy to play the part of Tara’s boyfriend. But as they uncover the inner workings of the Chosen, they realize how much danger they’re in. Because Andrea isn’t the first follower to conveniently disappear—and they may be next.
“Lost succeeded for me both in terms of the romance and the suspense. Tara and Jake had chemistry and their love for one another was built on a solid layer of mutual respect, which was a plus. They came across as smart and mature and that is always a pleasure for me to read. At about the 70% mark, the tension ratchets up and I was completely invested in the outcome and worried it wasn’t going to work out. (It does. It’s a romance. But in good romantic suspense, you should be worried, I think.)” — Kaetrin from Dear Author
The dinner horn blew while Tara was literally mending fences. After five weeks with the Chosen, she was allowed to work alone, though always in sight of others. The various areas of the twenty-nine-hundred- acre compound were divided by a multitude of different types of fencing, all of which needed regular maintenance. Plain white pickets created a welcoming atmosphere at the front in spite of the guards on duty. Eight-foot chain-link surrounded the buildings where group activities took place. Critter fencing protected the gardens, nets covered the fruit trees, and a hefty, wrought-iron barrier kept the unwelcome out of the Leader’s private domain.
At the sound of the air horn, Tara put down the wood-handled saw she’d been using to cut away the oak tree limb that had pushed its way through the chain-link on the northeast side of the complex and wiped the sweat from her forehead. She rolled her shoulders to relieve the ache that had settled in about half an hour before. What she wouldn’t give for a long, hot shower. But she had only twenty minutes to put her tools away, splash some water on her hands and face, and get to the mess hall before dinner was served. She’d learned the hard way that if you missed predinner prayers, you missed dinner.
She slid inside the cavernous dining hall just before the sentries shut the door and took her place at one of the long trestle tables next to a woman named Joy, who had been assigned to show her around her first day at the compound. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, Joy’s broad face gave her a vaguely Mexican look, but she spoke with a typical Texas drawl.
“Thanks for saving me a spot,” Tara said as she settled in beside the older woman. “I was out on the northern edge and I wasn’t sure I’d make it!”
“Is the fence repaired?”
“Not yet. I’m still getting the tree cut away. Then I can patch it.”
“One of the men should help you.”
Tara thought so, too, but she wasn’t about to complain. A chance to be alone among the Chosen was too valuable to squander.
“They have their work. I can manage, even if I can’t go as quickly.” Joy might have replied, but the sound of chimes indicated that the Leader was about to take the stage for the blessing of the meal. And this was no “Good bread, good meat, good God, let’s eat” prayer, like the ones Tara had grown up with. No, the Leader usually droned on for a good fifteen minutes about the Powers and their importance and their great beneficence before shutting up and letting his followers eat. This was also the time he introduced any newcomers to the group.
Tara glanced at the small table at the front where those who were taking their first meal with the Chosen sat. She remembered her own dinner at that table. Having spent the day with Joy, she had been distressed to find herself left alone. The analytical part of her mind had understood: separating her from the woman who had been her guide left her vulnerable, more likely to look for security in the group dynamic. But men like the Leader used those techniques because they worked and, despite her recognition of the manipulation, they’d worked on her. She had appreciated it when the Leader sat with her, when he introduced her and everyone made her feel welcome.
At the table tonight were a man and three women, the most people Tara had ever seen at one time coming into the group. But then, the holidays were approaching, and the lost and lonely became more needy when the leaves started to fall.
After the Leader finished his mumbo jumbo about not polluting the bodies that housed the eternal souls granted us by the Powers, he asked the newcomers to join him on the stage, leaning down to offer a hand to each of the three women as they climbed the stairs. The man followed behind them, shoulders stooped, with a slight hitch in his gait. It wasn’t until all four faced the audience that Tara recognized him. All the blood rushed out of her head, and a wave of dizziness assailed her.
“Are you all right?” Joy whispered in her ear, a hand on Tara’s arm.
“I just . . . low blood sugar or something,” Tara choked out. Good God, what was Jacob Nolan doing there? Did the FBI have something on the Chosen? But last she’d heard, Nolan had left the Bureau and was working full-time at computer programming. Of course, it had been months since she’d been in touch with anyone from her past. Perhaps he’d gone back to work.
If the FBI had sent Jake, what did that mean for Andrea, the girl whose disappearance had prompted Tara’s involvement with the Chosen? She blinked back the dizziness and concentrated on the Leader’s words.
“As you know, we welcome all who come to us seeking refuge from the troubles of the world outside. Here you will find the peace that comes with the acceptance of the Powers’ rule, and when you accept them into your heart, you will be accepted in turn.”
He put a hand on the first woman’s head. “This was Eloise. She has visited us off and on for almost three months, so many of you may recognize her. Today, she joins us and becomes Rachel.”
“Hello, Rachel, and welcome,” said the crowd.
“You may also recognize Janet, who has helped us with the harvest for several days. Today she joins our community as Mary.”
“Hello, Mary, and welcome.”
Tara wondered how many of the members of the Chosen had been to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and whether the greetings sounded familiar to them.
“This was Suzanne. She heard about us and came from Louisiana to join us. Today, as a member of the Chosen, she becomes Charity.” Suzanne was petite, blonde, and curvy, and the Leader’s hand lingered on her head.
Then he turned to Jake. “Jason has also sought us out. Today, he is Chosen and becomes Jacob.”
Neat trick. How had Jake convinced the Leader that he should be given the name Jacob? The Chosen were given names in a peculiar range from Old Testament reference to New Age sentiment, but it was too coincidental that Jake should be given his own back.
Dinner was served, and Tara mechanically put the food into her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. The vegetable stew and homemade bread filled her belly, but she could barely taste them, so engrossed was she in her thoughts. How could she get close to Jake? As a new member, he would be assigned first-level chores and he would always have another man with him as a “guide.” She had at least another day on the fencing, and then she’d be given some other job to do, either alone or with another woman—rarely did the sexes mingle. With the exception of Sunday afternoons, when they were allowed a few hours of freedom, the acolytes’ days were scheduled from dawn to dusk, and most of them liked it that way. If she raised a fuss, or tried to buck the system, she’d never find Andrea.
Was it possible Jake knew Tara was in the group? Surely not. Which meant he was here on some kind of official business, since she didn’t believe for a minute he’d decided to sign up for real. What had he given as a cover story? He was thin to the point of gauntness, bruises darkened the skin beneath his eyes, and a heavy shadow covered what Tara knew to be a strong jaw. In short, he looked as if he’d been living rough for weeks, even months.
Tara didn’t believe that, either. Jake Nolan had money and smarts. Of course, he was also obsessively determined when he set his mind to something. She wouldn’t put it past him to starve himself and sleep in a field for a week for an undercover job. Still, she couldn’t help the twinge of concern over his appearance. Jake had taken leave from the FBI for a reason: his fanatical pursuit of answers had nearly destroyed him. What if he had strayed too close to the edge this time?
She didn’t realize how often she’d looked at him until Joy startled her with a poke in the ribs.
“He’s a handsome man.”
“Y-yes.” She felt a blush crawl up her cheeks. Well, better the woman thought Tara’s interest in Jake was sexual than that she realize the truth.
“Maybe the Leader will assign him to help you with the fencing.”
“Oh no. I told you, I am doing fine.” Plus, luck had never smiled on Tara, and she didn’t expect it to start now. But Joy just winked, and Tara wondered whether the woman might be hatching some kind of matchmaking plan. Well, fine. If Joy had the Leader’s ear and could arrange for Jake to work with her, so much the better.
All night, Tara fretted in her bunk in the twelve-woman cabin. She had seen nothing to indicate the Chosen were involved in anything that might bring them to the FBI’s attention. Some separatist groups were dangerous, and many of the leaders were egotists if not worse, but she’d always believed the vast majority of members were simply average Joes and Janes trying to find a way through an overly complicated world. A bit credulous, maybe, but not bad at heart.
The morning bell found Tara with gritty eyes and an aching head. Crawling out of her bunk took every drop of her energy. She brushed her teeth and scrubbed her face, then headed back to the dining hall for breakfast with three of the other women from her cabin, one of whom—Aurora—was six months pregnant.
Aurora had explained to Tara that she’d run from her abusive boyfriend the moment she realized she was pregnant, landing with the Chosen after six weeks on her own. She slept in the bunk below Tara’s and chattered nonstop. Even, occasionally, in her sleep. Although she was probably only a few years younger than Tara’s own thirty, she made Tara feel ancient.
The four women entered the hall together, but one of the door sentries pulled Tara aside the minute they were inside.
“The Leader would like to speak with you,” he said. Tara’s heart pounded. Please God, Jake hadn’t betrayed her. Unable to speak, she nodded and followed the man, whose name she thought was Aaron, as he led her up to the front of the room.
“Serena,” the Leader said in his mellifluous baritone. “Joy has brought it to my attention that you could use a hand with the western fence.”
“Only for speed, Leader. I would not want to take someone else from their duties.” There, that sounded appropriately humble.
“Ah, but we would not wish you to suffer unduly in your service. You are precious to the Powers. Never forget that.”
“Yes, Leader.” Puke.
“Do you feel up to working with a new acolyte, being so fresh here yourself? It is a great responsibility, and one I do not request lightly.”
“If you are certain you wish to entrust me with such an honor, I would take the responsibility most seriously.”
“It is settled, then. This afternoon, you work with Jacob. Come after lunch and Aaron will introduce you.”
That left the morning, during which Tara worked in the laundry.
Aaron stepped into view. “The Leader wishes to see the two of you.”
“Now?” Tara let her fear bleed into her voice to mask her anger. If Jake’s appearance led to her being forced out of the compound, she’d kill him, but it was better to sound like a whiner among the Chosen than to allow her strength to show.
“Yes. Your tools will be put away for you. You are to follow me up to the main house.”
“This is your fault,” Tara hissed at Jake for Aaron’s benefit as they trudged across the field. “All I wanted was a little peace and quiet, to make my life whole again.”
“Running isn’t the answer. We can make our lives whole together,” Jake muttered, loud enough for Aaron to hear. “I’m just asking you to let me try.”
“I’m staying, you’re going.”
“What about the Chosen not judging?”
“Maybe I’m not entirely settled in yet. But I’ll get there. Faster, once you’re gone.”
“I’m not going any where, T—Serena.”
They reached the ranch house and were ushered into a large, airy office, where the Leader waited in a leather chair. Aaron indicated that they were to kneel before the chair, and Tara did. Jake, she noticed, took longer to obey.
The Leader sighed.
“Serena, why did you not tell me you knew Jacob when you first saw him last night?”
Although she was prepared for the question, Tara stumbled through her answer. “I . . . I’m not really sure. I guess I thought . . . if you knew who he was, you’d send him away and I wanted him to stay because . . . Oh, this is so embarrassing.”
“You have no need to be ashamed. Remember, the Powers are loving and forgiving.”
“Of course. But I didn’t live up to the best of what I can be. It was petty. I wanted him to be here, to see how good a life I had made for myself without him. I wanted him to know that I was one of the Chosen. When we were together, he made me feel small.” That much was true; Jake had made her feel small. He’d spared her no quarter letting her know of her incompetence. “I wanted to show that I was better than he thought.”
“What did he do to you?”
“I caught him with another woman.” She’d decided to use the excuse about halfway through their trip to the house. It would explain their antagonism as almost nothing else could. Let him figure out what to say in his own defense.
“Is this true, Jacob?”
Jake shrugged, a movement as foreign to his body as the humble, kneeling pose. This man was driven, focused, never apathetic.
“I was drunk,” he mumbled.
“You were drunk a lot,” she spat, letting her anger fly free.
“I’m sorry, T—Serena. I haven’t had a drink in weeks. I admit, when you first left, I got drunk and stayed that way. But then I realized I had to clean up. All this time, I’ve been looking for you. That has to count for something.”
Tara didn’t answer.
“Tell me, Serena, what you feel at this moment,” said the Leader. Under his smooth, superficially considerate tone, she felt the fangs of an emotional vampire. He was enjoying watching her and Jake slap at each other. “I wish I were strong enough to forgive him,” she replied.
“I need to meditate on this. You will each go to your bunks and remain there until dinner. After dinner, we will speak again.”
~The Lego Trailer~