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Authors: Shelley Bates

Grounds to Believe

BOOK: Grounds to Believe
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Praise for RITA
®
Award winner Shelley Bates and her novels

“Suspenseful and intriguing,
Grounds to Believe
starts off running and never slows down. Shelley Bates expertly contrasts a controlling and demoralizing religious cult with the true love and caring of God.

4½ TOP PICK!”


Romantic Times BOOKreviews

“Shelley Bates is a brave and talented author who looks at the darkness as well as the light.”

—Bestselling author Mary Jo Putney

“Bates delivers a gut-wrencher with poignant style.”


Romantic Times BOOKreviews
on
Pocketful of Pearls

SHELLEY BATES
GROUNDS TO BELIEVE

For Jeff, always,
and for Troon Nicholas Harrison
and Heather J. A. Graham, with love

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

My thanks go to Kristin Hannah, for being the first to believe; to William C. Hopkins, M.D., for his assistance with the psychology of MSBP; to Troon, Heather and Jenny Andersen, for timely comments on short notice and unflagging faith in me; to my parents, Dan and Carol, for their love; and to Debbie aka Ms. Peaches, Connie, Marti, Apples, Marge and Bernice of the PMB, for their support and willingness to share.

FOREWORD

Ever since I was a child, I’ve solved problems by writing them into a story. This book began as I was struggling with issues of faith: Who is God to me? How do I know whether I’m saved? If faith without works is dead, what’s the point of grace? My struggles and discoveries became those of Julia, the woman at the center of this book. She has grown up in a toxic church, where worship is based on works, and the traditions of men take the place of doctrine and lead to judgment, not Jesus. The Elect of God, of course, are an entirely fictional group, as are all the characters and the town where they live. But Julia’s struggles were mine, and as she found her way, I did, too. The research, the writing and then living the journey were not easy. But they were worth it. I love to hear from readers; visit me on the Web at www.shelleybates.com, or send me an e-mail at [email protected]

Prologue

1997

H
is daughter was in their hands.

Deputy Sheriff Ross Malcolm lay on a dusty hillside in central Washington State and watched the cluster of weathered buildings below. It had been a town once. The Apocalypse-focused Church of the Seventh Seal rented the few acres for cash from an absentee landlord. They’d thrown a wooden palisade around the unpainted houses, what looked like a barn or meeting hall, and half an acre of struggling vegetables.

Rocks and pieces of dead cactus dug into his belly and the worn thighs of his jeans. Ross put the binoculars down and slid his sunglasses back into place.

Kailey was only sixteen months old. With every fiber of his being, he wanted to get her away now, so she wouldn’t remember these people and that…cult. He had
papers in his jacket pocket to start the process, ready to serve on Anne as soon as he found her. Paperwork was all he’d been able to accomplish since Anne had walked out of the house with the baby, joined the “Sealers,” and vanished. The last year was burned into his mind the way the sun was burning into his back now—focused and harsh and inescapable.

He needed a plan. Despite the heavenly promise of legions of angels fighting on their side, the Sealers were well-and illegally armed. According to the one source he’d been able to find, they had been stockpiling weapons in preparation for the end of the world since the seventies, but were too smart to do it overtly. In her last attempt to bend his beliefs to hers, Anne had told him one of the first signs of the end would be agents of the government breaking down people’s doors and dragging the faithful away.

Well, his paycheck had the county seal on it, so his ex-girlfriend was right on that score. But this wasn’t official business. Breaking down doors wouldn’t get him what he wanted anyway. Slumped shoulders and tears in his eyes might. For Kailey, he’d try anything.

He left the pickup on the far side of the hill, out of sight of any watchers at the windows who waited for an attack that would never come. In the distance a rancher was taking off his early hay crop. The valley seemed so peaceful. Ross was the only note of desperate discord in it.

His boots scuffed the dusty surface of the road, the quarter mile stretching in front of him the way roads did in his dreams—where he walked and walked and got
nowhere. The compound was silent when he reached the gate. A hot, dry breeze whistled down the long valley, and a trickle of sweat ran between his shoulder blades. Maybe he should have called for backup.

He couldn’t. The local jurisdiction didn’t have the manpower for a parental abduction case, and no experience in prosecuting one. This was personal. Besides, the Sealers were too unpredictable. They might see an approaching car as the beginning of the government’s attack. Look what happened at Waco, they would say, and lob a grenade over the wall.

There was no one posted at the gate, nor did anyone challenge him as he approached the first of the ramshackle, weathered buildings. He had no doubt his movements were being carefully monitored, though. He knocked at the first door he came to, the dead sound telling him how thick the wood really was. Two minutes passed while he stood there perspiring in his T-shirt and leather jacket. He knocked again.

The door cracked open and a woman peered out, keeping the heavy panel between him and her body. “Yes?”

“My name is Ross Malcolm,” he said, trying to look harmless and smaller than six foot three. “I’m—was—Anne DeLuca’s partner. I’d like to see her, if that’s possible.”

“What for?” the woman asked. She wore a faded cotton print dress, and her gray hair was pulled into a knob on top of her head. The strip of leg that showed in the crack of the door was bare and unshaven, the foot stuffed into a brown loafer that had seen too much time on that road up the hill.

Ross shrugged and spread his hands. “I haven’t seen my little girl in a while. I’d just like to hold her. And visit with Annie for a few minutes.”

The woman gave him a narrow glare, as if searching for a lie hidden in his words. “Outsiders aren’t allowed in. I’ll have to see,” she said, and shut the door in his face.

Well, it was better than a grenade.

Ross looked around for somewhere to sit, but there was no comfort provided for visitors. He moved into the scant shadow of the wall as the sun slid over the shoulder of the house. Loose-limbed but alert, he leaned against the unpainted wood.

If he ever got to see Annie, it would take all his self-control not to shout recriminations at her for bringing Kailey into this. What kind of life was this for a child? There was no love for God here. From what his informant had said about the Sealers, they fostered an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, feeding their members the kind of ridiculous lies that only the truly brainwashed could believe. Kailey would know no stability in this environment, because the group moved every time its leader got spooked—part of the reason it had taken him so long to find them—and were so secretive they stuck to rural areas where outsiders wouldn’t bother them.

Annie could stay if she wanted to. She made her own choices. But she couldn’t make them for Kailey and him. Any love he might have felt for her once had been burned away in his quest to locate them over the last year. If he had to arrest his former girlfriend to get his little girl out
of the Sealers’ hands, he’d do it without so much as a quiver of regret for the couple they had been.

Only one good thing had come of the whole terrible experience. He had been driven back to God, grieving and desperate, and had seen that he couldn’t manage the search for Kailey on his own. He needed strength from a source greater than himself, a source whose power he’d proven time and again.

He had to have faith that the loving giver of that strength wouldn’t desert him now.

He shifted, and something glinted in the dust. He nudged the object with the toe of his boot.

With a quick glance around, he pulled a piece of scrap paper out of his pocket and picked up a shell casing with an odd diagonal dent in the middle. To his knowledge, only one type of gun did that to a shell on its way out of the barrel.

There were more. Two. Five. He brushed away a pile of dirt. A dozen. More, all with the distinctive dent. Someone had been standing right here and had fired an HK-93 semi-automatic rifle with an illegal thirty-round clip right off the front porch. And when he was done, instead of picking up his brass, he had just kicked dirt over it and walked away.

Ross fought to be objective, fought to keep his emotions calm as he thought about Kailey somewhere within range of such a lethal nutcase. He picked up a couple dozen casings and distributed them among his pockets, then resumed his relaxed stance against the wall.

The door cracked open a couple of minutes later, and he levered himself upright, his heart rate kicking into over
drive. Annie stepped out onto the porch, Kailey sound asleep on her shoulder.

Relief washed over him with such intensity his knees almost buckled. The long search was over. His daughter looked all right. She wore a sleeveless cotton shift that rode up over her little diapered behind, and her arms and legs seemed plump enough, so they must be feeding her. She’d also grown about a foot.

“What are you doing here, Ross? How did you find me?”

He looked at Anne for the first time. Like the woman who had answered the door, she was dressed in shapeless faded cotton, her hair scraped away from her face to satisfy somebody’s aesthetic of submissive femininity. Her hands, clasped on Kailey’s smooth baby skin, were roughened with outside work. Her sunburned nose had begun to peel.

He struggled to find in this stony woman the laughing, savvy blonde that he’d fallen for a month after he’d met her. What an idiot he’d been, with a very young man’s naive ideas about female perfection. He knew better now. Since he’d allowed the spirit of God into his heart, he had a different slant on perfection.

“I’ve been looking for you both since you left,” he replied, pasting on a smile, his stance loose and unthreatening. The last thing he wanted was to spook her. In a second she could disappear back through that door and unleash a squadron of the faithful to chase him off the property. “You used your credit card for the first time about a month ago, at a hospital around here. I talked to some people and narrowed it down from there.”

“Kailey had an infection. Moses told me not to do it. I should have listened to him.”

And if she hadn’t, Kailey might be dead. He should be thankful for what was left of Anne’s independent streak, even if it had led him to a place that made the hair on his neck prickle with uneasiness.

“I’m glad you didn’t. Mind if I hold her?” His arms ached, his skin hungry for the comforting weight of his child against his chest.

“She’s asleep,” Annie said, frowning, and hitched the baby higher on her shoulder.

“I won’t wake her. Please, Annie.”

Her eyes narrowed as she considered him. Then, with a glance at the door and the safety behind it, she relented. Ross held out his arms and Anne put the baby into them.

Kailey murmured and he settled her against his chest, rubbing a slow, soothing hand over her back. The casings in his pocket gave a tiny clink, and he settled her more comfortably. With a sigh, the baby slid into deeper sleep. Every cell in his body focused on her, his whole being concentrated on this moment. Slowly, he cataloged the details that would sustain him. The fan of pale eyelashes against her cheek. The whorl of thick hair on the crown of her head. That baby smell that provoked immediate memories of bottle feedings late at night while Annie worked the graveyard shift at the hospital. Living the moment as intensely as he could, he willed the sweetness of it into his memory and the fear of losing her retreated. For the moment.

He had too few memories. Far too few for the sixteen months of his daughter’s life. He lifted his head to meet Annie’s gaze. “We need to talk.”

She shrugged. “Here I am.” No softness in her face indicated his emotion had touched her.

“Not here.”

“It’s as good as you’re going to get. Outsiders aren’t allowed in, and I’m certainly not going anywhere with you. Whatever you have to say, say it. I’ve got vegetables to weed.”

He forced his arms to stay relaxed. If the tension in them woke Kailey it would just give Anne an excuse to take her away from him.

“I’d like to work out some kind of arrangement with you so I can see her.”

She shook her head. “I don’t see how. Unless you give up the Devil’s government and join us. Allow God into your heart and learn to live for His return at the end of the world.”

He hated it when she mouthed her doctrine at him. “I know you don’t want to marry me and give her a conventional family. But I’m willing to overlook this last year and just go with occasional visits.” If he thought she’d go for that one, he was wrong. “Come on, Annie, she’s my daughter. I have a petition for custody with me. I won’t allow her to grow up without knowing me.”

“She’ll grow up knowing her heavenly Father, which is far more important in the long run, Ross. Her relationship with Him is going to benefit her for eternity.”

“But it isn’t going to benefit
me.
I want to see my kid grow up. I want to be part of her life.”

A mistake. He knew it instantly.

“You,” she spat. “Always you. You want this, you want that. Well, for once you’re going to have to accept what
I
want. And I want my daughter to grow up knowing God, in the safety of His house, away from the kind of influence that will only distract her from what’s important. I don’t recognize your papers or your rights. When Armageddon comes, Ross, what you want will be—quite frankly—irrelevant. What she’ll have will save her.”

He took a deep breath, controlling his welling frustration for Kailey’s sake. “What about when she gets older? What about her education? I w—I’d like to be involved there. Even if it’s only financially.”

“She’ll learn everything she needs here. Two of us were teachers before we came to God.”

“But she—”

“Schools are the tool of an evil government, Ross. They’ll rot her mind. Everything she needs to know, she’ll learn here. With me and God’s chosen Church.”

“And that’s final?” he asked. His arms trembled. His rage and fear were threatening to overcome his faith that God would give him the words to convince her. He had to try one more time. “Isn’t there some kind of compromise we can work out?”

She held out her arms. “We can’t compromise with the world and keep ourselves pure. Give her to me, Ross.”

Involuntarily, his grip tightened, and Kailey woke. She pushed back and gaped at him. Her eyes widened, tears
spurted into them, and she shrieked, her little hands pushing fearfully at his chest.

Anne snatched her away from him. “I told you. You’re a total stranger to her. She stays with me, where she belongs.” She wrenched the door open.

“I wouldn’t
be
a stranger if you hadn’t run off and—wait!” The door slammed, and he was alone in the shabby porch.

Heat shimmered around him as he ran back to the truck. Jamming it into gear, he roared into town, throwing up a plume of dust that spiraled thickly in the rearview mirror.

Lord, help me. Help me.

As he burst into the sheriff’s office, Ross knew he looked like a crazed gunfighter, covered in dust and sweat, tears leaking out of the corners of his eyes.

“What happened to you?” Sheriff Cornoyer looked up from the blizzard of reports on his desk. “You get run over by a cattle drive?”

“It’s not funny, Corny,” he told the sheriff, who had been patient in helping a fellow officer with his quest. “I need a warrant.”

Cornoyer gave him a searching look. “You have grounds to believe there’s a crime somewhere in my jurisdiction?”

“My ex-girlfriend won’t give me access to my daughter.”

“She’s a Sealer. I told you she wouldn’t listen. But you had to go out there and prove it for yourself.”

“Knock it off, Corny.”

“Get real, Ross. You’re supposedly on leave, and you’re on my turf. Show me some evidence that will give me the Sealers and we’ll talk.”

BOOK: Grounds to Believe
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