A dangerous cult has recently taken over the desert ghost town of Paradise, Arizona. Members worship at the feet—and in the bed—of its charismatic leader, Ethan Wycliff, and obey his orders blindly. They've already tried to murder one woman and they're implicated in the disappearance of another.
Nate Ferrentino, who works for private security contractor Department 6, has been assigned to infiltrate this group. It's a challenge he welcomes—until he learns that colleague Rachel Jessop will be going undercover with him. Thanks to their shared history, he'd much rather go alone….
The problem is, only married couples can participate in cult rituals. So, like it or not—and they don't—Rachel and Nate must pretend to be husband and wife.
There's no choice. Because if Wycliff isn't exposed, if he isn't stopped, more people will die. And Rachel might be one of them.
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Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
—King James Bible, Matthew 7:15
"This guy is dangerous?" Rachel Jessop studied the glossy black-and-white photograph her manager slid across the table.
Nate Ferrentino's leather chair squeaked as he leaned back and locked his hands behind his head. "He doesn't look dangerous to you?" One eyebrow arched, telling her he found her reaction amusing, but she couldn't begin to guess why, and she'd worked with him long enough to know he wouldn't explain even if she asked. With short dark hair and green, gold-flecked eyes, he had the face of a sensitive man who'd become cynical and the body of a soldier. Nate was a tempting physical specimen. But he wasn't one to reveal much about his thoughts.
Rachel wished that was all she knew about her boss. When she'd first started working at Department 6 eight months ago, she'd been so convinced she'd met the one man she could love with all her heart, she'd made a humiliating miscalculation. The embarrassment of that incident still burned so intensely she could barely look at him.
Ignoring the way his T-shirt stretched over his clearly defined pecs, she kept her focus on Ethan Wycliff, the man in the picture. Wiry and with the appearance of some height, Ethan had polish to spare—high cheekbones, black hair, black eyes and a beguiling smile. "He's too pretty to seem dangerous. He could be on billboards, modeling suits for Armani. What's he done?"
Except for possibly height, Nate was Ethan's opposite. Although he wasn't overweight by any stretch of the imagination, slender wasn't an adjective that came to mind. Pretty and polished didn't fit, either. He was handsome, but not in the classic sense of movie stars and models. His forehead was a bit too wide, his jaw too square. And he had too many scars—both from when he was a navy SEAL and from working for Department 6 after he'd left the military.
"Depends on who you talk to," he said. "There's a chance that none of it's illegal, but the secrecy surrounding him and his group is making some important people nervous."
Rachel shoved the picture back in Nate's direction, but he didn't move to reclaim it. He let Ethan Wycliff's image remain on the table, eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling of the small conference room—one of several in the L.A. office. Unlike other security contractors, Department 6 rarely handled military operations. They specialized in undercover work, generally inside the U.S.
"What's he suspected of doing?" she asked. "Laundering money? Smuggling drugs? Working in the sex-slave trade?"
"He's the leader of a religious cult about two hundred members strong."
That was the last thing she'd expected Nate to say. Judging by Ethan's elegant business suit, he had taste. He wasn't sporting a scraggly beard, wasn't beggarly or odd-looking in any way. Neither did he appear smarmy like some televangelists she'd seen. Not in the photograph, anyway. "What kind of religious cult?"
"A Christian cult. Sort of. It seems to be a compilation of whatever Ethan wants it to be. He and his followers call their organization the Church of the Covenant. One thing they believe is that the world is coming to an end very soon. Only those who are properly branded—"
"You mean, tattooed?" she cut in.
"No, I mean, branded—and baptized and living within the gates of their little commune—will rule with God."
"That's not particularly creative." She'd heard plenty of the same rhetoric in her own house growing up. For most of her life her father and the leaders of his small sect had claimed that the world was in its "last days." They'd named date after date when Armageddon would arrive. Every one had come and gone. "How'd he get his start?"
"Five years ago, he was a popular frat boy at Cornell. I guess he and a few roommates went out in the woods and devised their own religion, loosely based on the Old Testament's patriarchal order. Our intelligence report indicates that it was originally meant to be a joke. Drugs were involved. They called it the 'antireligion.'
But when they began meeting regularly, word spread among the kids at Cornell and other colleges in nearby communities, somehow generating support, and it became real."
"Power is tough to resist, especially for an Ivy League frat boy who's used to being on top of the world."
"That's my take, too."
She glanced away from Nate so she wouldn't squirm in her seat at the memories that overwhelmed her whenever their eyes met. "How many of his roommates still belong to this so-called religion?"
"The original four are still with him. They're known as 'spiritual guides' now and they're part of the Brethren, the twelve men who form a close circle around him. A fifth roommate, one who joined a bit later, is dead."
"Dead?" she echoed. "At twenty-something?"
"He was killed in a drunk-driving accident after a meeting. There are a few unanswered questions but no real proof that it was anything other than that."
She considered what she'd just been told. "What's so appealing about his religion that others are interested in joining up?"
"It's mostly familiar stuff but with a modern twist. It includes extramarital sex and drug use. And Wycliff has a few assets—besides his looks—that make him more dangerous than most cult leaders."
She ignored his reference to her appreciation of Wycliff's appearance and scooted closer to the table. But the instant she caught Nate's scent, that mix of clean male and leather that would forever differentiate him from every other man, the memory of slipping into his bed to "surprise" him came to her as vividly as the night she'd done it. Would the mortification never go away?
He gave her a speculative look, as if he could suddenly sense an added level of discomfort, but she was determined to pretend she'd forgotten all about her terrible faux pas. As a child, she'd been sheltered so long she hadn't grown up with the usual interplay between the sexes and, apparently, hadn't read his signals correctly. She'd thought he wanted the same thing.
Keeping her gaze steady, she struggled, once again, to forget that night. "And those assets are…"
"More charisma than any man has a right to, at least a man who once idolized Charles Manson."
"Charles Manson? Are you serious?"
He chose a file from a stack he'd brought in with him, and thumbed through it while he talked. "Dead serious. Wycliff corresponded with Manson regularly while he was in high school. I've got copies of some of those letters here."
"Was their correspondence a joke at first, too?"
"He played it that way, used to read Manson's letters aloud to various people he knew, including his parents. His mother said he liked the shock value. His father claims he's always been fascinated with killers. Especially Manson, because of the brutality of the Tate murders and the power Manson held over those who committed them."
"Why would they allow him to correspond with someone like Manson?"
"It started out as what Ethan called 'a psychological study.' He said he wanted to major in behavioral science when he went to college."
She shivered. "But couldn't they see where it was going? These letters make me more than a little nervous."
"They should've made everyone nervous." He offered the file for her perusal.
Careful not to brush his hand, she accepted it but merely placed it in front of her, because he was still talking.
"At first his parents saw only what they wanted to see and hoped his interest was professional, as he'd claimed. He didn't read them what he wrote to Manson. He kept that private, so the bits and pieces they heard of Manson's letters made it sound as if Manson was the only crazy one."
"So how did we get copies of the letters?"
"You know how closely prison mail is monitored. Once his father finally became uneasy, he paid a correctional officer to keep an eye on the budding relationship. It was that guy who made copies. But he worked certain days and shifts, of course, and the letters that came and went on someone else's watch were lost."
"Why didn't dear old dad put a stop to the letters once he saw what they contained?"
"His wife insisted it was just a 'phase' Ethan was going through, that he was purposely trying to provoke Manson, the same way he tried to provoke everyone else. And then the problem seemed to solve itself. Ethan grew disenchanted with Manson, quit writing him and the relationship ended."
"But that was a pretty ominous start, and it led to a bigger problem."
"Exactly. Now Ethan's set himself up as a prophet, the Holy One, the man to lead all Christians to enlightenment."
"And let me guess—enlightenment happens after this life."
"With your background, I knew you'd be familiar with the dogma."
Far more than she wanted to be. She'd tried hard to distance herself from the brainwashing she'd undergone as a child, but it wasn't easy to put all those hours of religious "instruction" behind her. Not when there were so many lasting effects, some of which she blamed for the embarrassing blunder she'd made with Nate six months ago.
"Sounds as if he's as whacked as Manson," she mused. Or, like her father, his teachings and devotions could be similar enough to mainstream religions to fall within what society deemed "normal." Not that her father's "normal" was normal to most people. From the moment she got home from school every day, Fredrick Jessop had kept her under lock and key, forced her to read the Bible for hours on end and go to church three or four times a week. Until she'd left home at seventeen, he'd had complete control. Even after she was on her own, she'd been so well trained she was twenty-five before she lost her virginity; at that point she'd finally slept with a man just to punish her father after an argument. That had turned out to be such a bad experience, so cheap and unsatisfying, she hadn't had sex again until she met Nate. But, for different reasons, her encounter with Nate had been even more disappointing than the original one.
"He might be crazy," Nate said. "But making up your own religion isn't a crime. You know that better than most."
Her father and his cronies had done it, hadn't they? "So what law has Ethan broken?"
Nate's broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. "That's the reason for this assignment—to find out."
She'd already assumed as much. But she wasn't comfortable with the religious element. Her background dealing with religious zealots had taught her there was no way to win, no way to argue any doctrine logically because people like her father always referred to the illogical to back up their beliefs.
"Do you think I have the experience for this?" she asked. Before coming to Department 6, she'd worked undercover for the LAPD, pretending to be a prostitute, as well as helping in some drug busts. Since hiring on at Department 6, she'd continued with drug enforcement, generally contract labor for the DEA. Bottom line, she'd specialized in something that was more straightforward, easier to fight. And she liked it that way.
"You have as much experience with this type of thing as anyone else at Department 6," he said.
That was probably true. They all did more drug work than anything else. "There must be something besides his affiliation with Manson that's brought this man to our attention," she said. "I'm guessing there are a lot of whack jobs who've contacted Manson over the years."
"A woman by the name of Martha Wilson recently escaped from the commune," Nate explained.
Now they were talking. "Another interesting word choice, seeing that escaped has the connotation of being held against her will."
"Her word," he said. "She claimed Wycliff punished her for sleeping with her own husband."
"I thought sex was dealt with in a more liberal fashion in this commune."
"It is. But she was on 'restriction.'"
Because it was beyond awkward to talk about sex with Nate after what had occurred between them, Rachel tried to cover her anxiety by toying with the edge of the file in front of her. "You're kidding."
"Nope. Otherwise, sex is open to anyone, married or unmarried, as long as both people are consenting and of age."
"Now I see why Ethan's attracting converts. Religious endorsement of drugs and sex. No willpower required. What's not to like?"
His lips quirked in a wry smile. "It's not quite as simple as it might sound."
"With religion, it never is," she muttered.
"Only those who live according to various 'higher laws'—" he made quotation marks with his fingers "—gain that benefit. But there's a cost. Once you join, you begin a process that culminates in embracing certain rituals that go with these laws. We're not sure what these rituals are. We got most of this information from what was reported in the papers. Martha was vocal about the group's abuse, but less so about their beliefs."
"And Milt can't get more information?" Milton Berger owned the company. Slightly eccentric, he was basically a wealthy businessman who'd never spent a day in the field. At forty-five, he drank and smoked so much he couldn't possibly run the forty-yard dash. But he had an eye for talent and a talent for making money.
"He's relying on us to figure out the rest."
"Do you know what the prize is?"
"The prize?" he repeated.
"What do the people in Ethan's religion get for living these supposed higher laws? There's always a prize for good behavior. It's usually called salvation."
"They're admitted into 'the Holy One's' inner sanctum and become sanctified like he is. Or something like that. Again, there might be more to it."
Remembering what she'd been taught regarding the few elect who would rule with God, she made a face. "How do people fall for this crap?" She'd been steeped in it and still couldn't buy it, although there'd been plenty of times she'd wished she could. It would've made her life so much easier.
"I think psychologists say they're not happy with the world in which they're living. Some want to prove how unique and special they are. Others are just hoping to feel as if they belong." He drummed his fingers on the table. "But who really knows? Motivations are as individual as people."
"Doesn't sound to me like the world they're building will be any better than the one we've got." No matter how hard her father and brother had tried to convince her that the afterlife was all that mattered. "How badly did Ethan Wycliff beat the woman who escaped?"
"She says it wasn't him. It was a public event—a stoning modeled after those in the Bible."
She stiffened. "Stoning is a death sentence in the Bible."
"Martha managed to escape."