Ritual Sins

By: Anne Stuart




Rachel Connery didn’t want to be there. At the age of twenty-nine she’d made it her policy never to do anything she didn’t want, to always have a choice in matters. She was here by choice, she reminded herself grimly. It was simply a choice she wished she didn’t have to make.

The taxi had already pulled to a stop outside the sweeping expanse of Santa Dolores, home base to the Foundation of Being. Seventeen miles away from Albuquerque, it sat beneath the New Mexico sun like the peaceful retreat it was purported to be. A compound devoted to meditation and enlightenment, combined with a hospice center to care for the dying.

Her mother had sought enlightenment behind those walls. Her mother had died there.

The cabdriver had already opened her door, and she slid out, brushing imaginary dust off her silk suit as she glared up at the compound. She didn’t want to be here, she thought again. And they knew it.

“I can handle it from here,” she said, taking her leather suitcase from the driver and handing him a generous tip.

“Blessings,” he murmured.


“Blessings. You’re one of Luke’s People, aren’t you?” The driver seemed momentarily confused, but his fist closed tight over the money in case she was inclined to snatch it back.

“No,” she said shortly. “I’m not.” And she marched toward the beautiful forged gate, her high heels firm in the dusty drive.

Luke’s People, they called themselves. She’d managed to blot that particularly ugly thought out of her mind, but now it was back. There was no more hiding from things she didn’t want to face. She’d never met the man, only seen him from a distance. But even across a crowded courtroom she could feel the poisonous strands of his charisma, like a spider’s web reaching out toward any stray creature who wandered in its path.

Luke Bardell, ex-con, convicted murderer, founder of what some people called a philosophy, others called a religion, and Rachel called a cult. The man who had mesmerized her dying mother into leaving twelve and a half million dollars to the Foundation of Being. And not a damned thing to the only child she’d ever had.

Ten years ago Rachel might have simply curled up in a tight ball and wept. But not now. She’d fought back, hard. Only to have her lawsuit thrown out by the first judge, her lawyers quit on her, and defeat wash over her like a bitter shower of acid. You can’t sue a religion. You can’t accuse a saint. Stella Connery was of sound mind when she made her will, she knew she was dying of breast cancer, and she’d made her decision and disinherited her daughter.

And the Foundation of Being had been nauseatingly gracious in triumph. Surely Rachel would want to make a pilgrimage to the place where her mother had spent her final peaceful days, to the spot where she was buried? She could see the good that Stella’s money was doing, make peace with what the courts and her mother had chosen. The Foundation, and Luke’s People, would welcome the chance to share the blessings that had come their way.

Rachel would have rather eaten fried caterpillars. They certainly weren’t about to share the money that they’d wheedled and tricked out of a vain, dying woman. Stella and Luke had been lovers, Rachel had no doubt about that whatsoever. Stella had gone through men with a voraciousness that had left her only child awed and frigid in response. No good-looking man had been immune to Stella.

Luke Bardell, the messiah of the Foundation of Being, was a very good-looking man indeed. And he’d been paid well for sleeping with a dying old lady.

If Rachel had been willing to accept defeat she would have refused their offer of hospitality. A sensible woman would have accepted the fact that the mother who’d abandoned her on almost every level had finally finished the job. She could find a new job, make a life for herself, choose not to be a victim of a distraught childhood.

Choice, again. There was that word. She could choose anger and revenge. Or she could choose to get on with her life.

If it hadn’t been for the letter from a stranger she might have made the wise decision. But once the creased, scrawled letter arrived in her mailbox with its hints and accusations, she had no real choice.