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Authors: Karen Duvall

Desert Guardian

BOOK: Desert Guardian
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DESERT GUARDIAN
 

by

 

Karen Duvall

Electronic
Edition

Copyright
@ 2013 by Karen Duvall

 

Without
limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication
may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or
transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, merchanical,
photo-copying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior permission of the
copyright owner.

 

This is a
work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the
product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events
of locales is entirely coincidental.

 

The
scanning, uploading, and distributing of this book via the internet or via any
other means without the permission of the copyright owner is illegal and
punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do
not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyright materials. Your
support of the author's rights is appreciated.

 

When Kelly
Bancroft receives a suicide letter from her brother, she knows the
star-worshipping cult he belongs to is to blame. She travels to the California
desert to try talking him into leaving the deadly Star Mother cult, but he's
nowhere to be found.

Cult
intervention specialist—and ex-cultist—Sam Reed, aka The Arrow, has
his work cut out for him when he teams up with Kelly to rescue her brother. Sam
has good reason to avoid the cult that killed his mother, but he's made it his
mission to save those who have fallen under Star Mother's spell.

Deluded by
their fantasy beliefs, the cult's followers await a starship that will deliver
them to utopia on another planet. The caveat? All passengers must leave their
bodies behind.

Will Sam’s
and Kelly’s romantic relationship help or hinder them in their struggle to stop
a mass suicide? Or will they themselves fall victim to the cult’s fatal
madness?

 

Praise for DESERT GUARDIAN:

 

Desert Guardian
 is a fast-paced story that kept me glued from the first page. Wow,
what a ride! I loved this book so much. The dialogue is excellent, the banter
between Kelly and Sam top-notch, and the roles they play are absolutely
outstanding. —
5 Angels, Fallen
Angels Reviews

 

The suspense is exquisitely developed but
the love story between the wonderful hero and heroine absolutely shines…
Readers will definitely want to make time to settle in for the duration of
 
Desert
Guardian
. —
5 stars, Romantic
Observer Reviews

 

Desert
Guardian
captivates the reader from the opening
chapter, with a mystery/suspense driven plot worthy of reading. Ms. Duvall
creates strong, dramatic characters as Sam and Kelly confront their own
personal emotional demons… —
Romance
at Heart Magazine

 

“Karen
Duvall’s
Desert Guardian
grabs the
reader's interest from the first page and never lets go.” —
Jasmine Cresswell, USA TODAY bestselling
author

Dear Reader,

 

Thank you so much for reading my romantic suspense novel,
Desert Guardian
. I'm fascinated and
horrified by cults of all kinds, and doing the research for this story opened
my eyes to the devestating effects a cult can have on someone's life and the
lives of their families. I hope you enjoy Sam and Kelly's journey as they
battle the madness that threatens them and the people they love. They learn
they're stronger together than they could ever be apart.

 

Please
visit my website
http://www.karenduvallauthor.com
, or
contact me at
[email protected]
. You can
also follow me on twitter @KarenDuvall or drop by my Facebook fan page:
http://www.facebook.com/karen.duvall.author.com

 

All my best,

Karen Duvall

 

This book
is dedicated to my amazing mother, Ruth Genco.

I miss you,
Mom.

 
Chapter One
 

What
a perfect night for a kidnapping.

The
dry desert air was warmer than usual for early spring, even for California, and
a moonless sky offered Sam Reed the ideal cover of darkness. He peered through
his binoculars at the row of trailers rimming the camp of the Star Mother cult.
The camper in the middle, with a dim yellow light glowing from its tiny window,
held his soon-to-be kidnapees. He recognized the camper even in the dark. It
was the same one he had stayed in with his mother twenty years ago.

"Well,
Cody old boy," he whispered to the scruffy coyote that stood at his side. "You
ready to play?"

The
lanky canine, no longer the starving pup Sam had rescued from the side of the
road two years ago, appeared to grin, his wide pink tongue lolling from a
panting mouth.

Sam
nodded. "Me, too. It's showtime."
 

He
stepped out from behind a mesquite tree and reached inside the black Jeep
Wrangler for his flashlight. He pointed at the uniformed dummy sitting in the
front seat. "Stay here and guard our phony sheriff," he told Cody
before setting off.

Crouching
low, Sam made his way toward the line of campers, his suede hiking boots
kicking up plumes of sand, his black jeans and leather jacket blending with the
night.

He
peered into the darkness at a ragged array of army surplus tents and
weather-beaten shelters from the cult's carnival days. Utility trailers made of
splintered wood and peeling paint dotted the campsite.

When
he spotted the tall black tent that stood majestically at the center of camp,
dread gathered like carnivorous locusts to chew through the pit of his stomach.
The dark side of his soul longed to grab what was inside and make her pay for
all the suffering she'd caused him and countless others. The woman who lived
there had tried years ago to mold him into something like herself. It hadn't
worked. And in the process, she had taken from him the only family he had.

But
payback would have to wait. He'd never have come here at all if he hadn't been
hired to take Kelly Bancroft and her brother away from this circus of sadists.

Sam
stopped in back of the wide metal box with bald wheels, its ancient aluminum
sides scarred from years of use. He took a quick look around to make sure none
of the cult's sentries had snuck out of their holes to ambush him. But all was
quiet in the ramshackle camp, the hive of cult devotees bedded down for the
night. He just hoped the two people he'd come to rescue would be as eager to leave
as he was to get them the hell out of there.

Resting
his ear against the camper's side, Sam listened for movement. Nothing. They
must be asleep. He crawled beneath the trailer, his small flashlight clamped
between his teeth as he searched for the trapdoor that would get him inside
through the floor. Once he found it, he hesitated with his hand on the lever.
He was assaulted by sudden memories of how this portal had been used in years
past.

Star
Mother's sentries would sneak up on unsuspecting guests who were promised
sanctuary in a peaceful community that guaranteed eternal life beyond the
stars. The cult was similar to Heaven's Gate in principle, but not in practice.
After a few days of artificial kindness and false compassion, the women were
raped, the children were separated from their parents, and the men were
beaten...all in the name of Star Mother. The bitch. Heaven's Gate was a nursery
rhyme compared to the horror novel epitomized by Star Mother.

He
gritted his teeth against an onslaught of emotion, biting down so hard he heard
the crunch of enamel on enamel.
Must
remain focused
. The people inside needed his help, not his rage.

With
a careful twist of the lever, he pushed up on the trapdoor and climbed into the
darkness within. According to the man who had hired him for this covert
intervention, his daughter, Kelly, was only visiting the cult for a couple of
days. His son, Jake, had been a full-fledged member for well over a year. Kelly's
plan was to cajole her brother into leaving the cult, but her father feared she
was in over her head. He was right. Sam hoped he'd arrived in time to prevent
any physical or psychological damage to either of them.

He
knew the trailer's layout like the back of his hand and automatically veered
toward the two bunks in back. One was empty. The other held the form of a woman
who turned in her sleep as if reacting to his presence, though he knew he'd
been silent as a cat.

The
woman's eyes were closed, but her eyelids fluttered as if she was dreaming. The
room was dimly lit by a nightlight, enabling Sam to see the sensuous curves of
her body beneath the blanket. He couldn't help wondering what she wore under
the sheets. Maybe a skimpy nightgown. Or perhaps she slept in the buff.

She
jerked and her eyes flew open. He swiftly knelt beside her to place one hand
over her mouth before she could scream.

"Be
still, Miss Bancroft." Sam glanced behind him to make sure no sentries had
come up through the floor. "Your father sent me. I'm to bring you and your
brother home."

Her
startled blue eyes widened.

"Don't
believe me?" He leaned in closer, his voice low. "Your father's name
is Frank Bancroft, and he owns a small tourist gift shop in Phoenix, Arizona.
You're Kelly Bancroft, twenty-five years old, a physical education teacher at
Piedmont High in Phoenix, and you coach girls' track and field for the local
community center on the weekends. How am I doing so far?"

She
scowled but nodded. He didn't dare risk taking his hand away. If she screamed,
every sentry in camp would come running.

"Your
eighteen-year-old brother dropped out of high school a year ago to join Star
Mother. You're here now because you want to talk him into leaving the cult, is
that right?"

Still
scowling, she nodded again, but her eyes were more intent. She might believe
him now.

"I
know from experience how dangerous these people are, Miss Bancroft, and I'm
afraid you won't be talking anyone into anything here. The Star Mother cult
plays for keeps, and the only way out is my way." He nodded toward the
open trapdoor. "Quietly, in the dark, and without anyone knowing." He
narrowed his eyes. "If I take my hand away, can I trust you not to scream?"

Her
eyes softened, no longer frightened, and she slowly closed her lids to show him
she'd calmed down. He lifted his hand from her mouth.

Kelly
pushed herself up to a sitting position, tugging the thin blanket up to her
chin. The short sleeves of a faded blue T-shirt covered her shoulders. So much
for being naked.

Fear
had melted from her expression like ice in an oven, her eyes squinting in
defiance. Sam hadn't expected Frank's daughter to be beautiful, especially
since her buck-toothed, gray-haired old man was no prize. Her chestnut hair
cascaded in thick waves to her shoulders, her tanned face emphasizing the
whites of her eyes. The irises were vibrant blue and seemed to glow with
annoyance as she continued to stare without blinking.

She
licked her full lips with the tip of her tongue, and in a voice still froggy
from sleep, she said, "Thanks for going to all this trouble, Mister..."

"Reed.
Sam Reed. But I'm better known as The Arrow here."

She
snorted. "Thanks, anyway, Mr. Arrow, or whatever your name is, but I don't
need your help. I know what I'm doing."

Sure
she did. "Mind if I ask what that is?"

"Yeah,
I mind. It's none of your business." She peered at the empty bunk and
sighed. "Besides, Jake's not here. He's away on some kind of recruiting
mission, but he'll be back tomorrow. And I'm not going anywhere without my
brother."

"Are
you sure he's where they say he is?"

She
looked puzzled. "Why would they lie?"

"To
keep you here. They've probably already started your conditioning." Though
she seemed fine, not frightened at all, and not nervous or edgy as he'd expect
from someone the cult had gotten their hooks into. And physically, she appeared
unmarked. She looked fit and healthy, and not too hard on the eyes, either. "How
long have you been waiting for him?"

"I
arrived day before yesterday. And by the way, no one's conditioned me for
anything." She rolled her eyes then cocked her head to one side. "What's
up with the arrow bit?"

Sam
gave her only half a smile. "I'm known for arrowing in on my target and
getting a bull's-eye every time."
Almost
every time, he chided himself. He'd failed one time too many. And that one time
would haunt him till the day he died.

"What
kind of target do you
arrow in
on?"
she asked, her words coated with sarcasm.

"I'm
a cult intervention specialist. I rescue victims of mind control, people who
can no longer think for themselves. After they're rescued, I counsel them back
to health."

"Give
me an example."

"You
want my resume?"

She
shrugged. "The
Reader's Digest
version will do."

Though
pressed for time, he could afford a few minutes to enhance his credibility. She
wouldn't cooperate if she didn't trust him. He scratched his jaw, trying to
recall an example that might come close to the Star Mother cult's profile. "Okay.
One example. Have you ever heard of the Children of God?"

She
shook her head.

"River
Phoenix was a member before he died. It's a cult that's now referred to as The
Family of Love, or just The Family. They preach on the dangers of a
de-Christianized society. Like Star Mother, their members are required to cut
all family ties."

Kelly
tilted her head down and peered up at him through thick, dark lashes. "But
Star Mother is happy to have me here."

"I'm
not finished," he said. "The Family's leader encourages female
members to practice what he calls 'flirty fishing,' which means attracting men
to conversion with the promise of sex. The media call these women 'Hookers for
Jesus.'"

"That's
sick."

"I
agree." He crossed his arms and pinned her with a serious stare. "I
helped one of their members escape a life of prostitution last year. As for
Star Mother being happy you're here, it's because they want something from you."

"They
want me to be a hooker?"

"Maybe."
He remembered back to the time when a pretty teenage girl he knew had been used
by Star Mother to help
convince
a new
convert to give a charitable donation. Tax deductible, of course.

Kelly
laughed, revealing deep dimples in both cheeks.

He
failed to see the humor. "There's nothing funny about innocent people
getting robbed and lied to."

She
shook her head. "I meant no disrespect. What's funny is that you're here
to save me when I don't need saving. I have everything under control, so go
back and tell my father..."

The
humor disappeared from her face, and she stared solemnly at the floor.

"Tell
your father what?"

She
looked up, stabbing him with a glare of pure malice, though he doubted it was
meant for him. She hadn't known him long enough. "Tell him he's too late."

"Too
late?"

"He
had his chance to fix things with Jake, but he chose not to. He kicked his son
out, disowned him. Disowned me, too, whether he meant to or not. I'll never
forgive him for giving Jake no choice but to find himself a new family, and
because of me..." She broke off and swallowed, her eyes shining in the dim
light of the tiny trailer room. "It's my fault he's here. I have to get
him out."

"How
is it your fault?" Sam recognized the anguish pulling at the corners of
her mouth, the shadows beneath her eyes and worry lines etching her forehead.
He knew guilt when he saw it. He stared it in the face every time he looked in
a mirror.

She
shrugged. "I don't want to talk about it. Just go away."

Forcing
himself to ignore the sadness in her eyes, he stood and snatched an apple from
a bowl of fruit on the counter. "Did you eat any of this?"

"Not
yet."

"Don't.
It's probably laced with acid. Hallucinogens help them turn you to their way of
thinking."

"Paranoid
much?" She crossed her arms but didn't move from the narrow bunk, the
blanket still covering her from the waist down. "I'm not brainwashed, and
I have no intention of joining Star Mother. I'm only here to talk my brother
out of killing himself."

This
brought Sam up short. "He wants to kill himself?"

She
nodded. "I'm not surprised my father left out that little detail. Jake
sent me a goodbye note that to anyone else would sound like an innocent
farewell letter, as if he's going away on a trip. But I know better. All that
nonsense about a spaceship was a sure giveaway."

Sam's
blood rushed to his toes. Damn Star Mother, they were really going to do it.
His mother used to talk about it all the time, praising the day that Star
Mother's followers had waited for all their lives. Anston's comet was closing
in on Earth, and the cluster of asteroids would soon become visible as it
skimmed the edge of Earth's atmosphere. The cult expected to catch a lift on
the starship that rode the comet's tail. Destination: Atria, Star Mother's
supposed home planet.

BOOK: Desert Guardian
10.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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