Sweet Illusions by Jeanette Lewis
Eva Malone was very young when her mother forced the family to join a violent doomsday cult, but she remembers a little about how normal life used to be. As a young woman, she escapes the cult and relocates to Indigo Bay, South Carolina to pursue her dream of peaceful anonymity.
After several tumultuous years as a policeman in Atlanta, Ben Andrews has had enough. He returns home to Indigo Bay and joins the Indigo Bay PD, where the most exciting part of the job is getting a kitten out of a tree or rescuing tourists who lose their keys at the beach.
Eva and Ben are immediately drawn to each other. But as the prophesied date of the apocalypse draws near and the cult steps up its efforts to find her, Eva realizes she can’t maintain her sweet illusion forever.
Eva sat just beyond the dunes on a blanket, next to the picnic basket she’d borrowed from Marjorie. She’d moved far enough along the beach that she could keep the trail leading between the dunes in her peripheral vision and watch for Ben. Her excitement had been building all day, tempered by dread he would ask about Sam. Ben would know she’d bailed Sam out, wouldn’t he? She didn’t know how much information was shared between the jail and the police department, but word traveled fast in Indigo Bay. Miss Lucille probably knew by now.
Her heart jumped as Ben appeared between the dunes. It was late in the day and the beach crowd had thinned, but he still stopped for a minute to search for her among the joggers, strolling couples, and tired families packing up their things. She was about to wave to him when he spotted her and began walking in her direction.
He wore his cargo shorts and a navy jacket, open over a blue-and-green-striped T-shirt.
He walked slowly, hands in the pockets of his jacket, and her smile slid away as he got closer. He knew.
“Hi.” He dropped onto the blanket, and she felt a physical ache at the space he put between them. Normally he would have sat close, gathered her into his arms, and pressed a kiss to her lips. But tonight he kept his distance, sitting at the edge of the blanket, toying with the fabric. “Our family beach blanket,” he said with a small smile.
“Yeah, your mom was really nice to let me borrow it, along with the basket.” She flapped one hand weakly toward the wicker basket at her side. The picnic wasn’t anything special—chicken salad sandwiches on croissants she’d picked up from the grocery store, along with red grapes, a bag of chips, and some chocolate chip cookies Marjorie had sent along with the basket.
And the red wine, with a pair of cheap goblets. She’d been trying to plan a romantic picnic, but now, with the way Ben was acting, her cheeks burned in embarrassment at her presumption.
“I used to fall asleep on this blanket,” Ben mused. His fingers pinched the red and blue folds, but his eyes were focused on the thundering waves. “We’d stay out here until we were absolutely fried with exhaustion. Then my dad would carry me to bed. That’s the best feeling isn’t it? Having your Dad ca— …” He trailed off as he turned his head; he must have remembered who he was talking to.
“I wouldn’t know,” Eva said.
Ben flushed. “Sorry. I got reminiscing and …” He met her eyes for a long moment, then ducked his head, lacing his fingers together at the back of his neck. “Why didn’t you tell me it was a cult?” he whispered.
Eva felt the sting of tension between her shoulder blades. Why indeed? Because calling it the Family, or the Church, or the Compound was so much more benign than calling it a cult. Admitting it was a cult meant admitting she’d been taken in, she’d been fooled, and even though she’d been so young and it wasn’t her fault, how did you explain that you let it go on for eighteen years, even after you’d grown up enough that you knew? How did you explain that kind of learned helplessness and fear?
She pressed her suddenly shaking hands between her knees. “I didn’t think of it as a … a cult,” she said. “To us, it was just the Family.”
“The Nineteenth Day Church,” Ben clarified, his voice scraping on the words. He yanked open the pocket of his shorts and pulled out a folded piece of paper, tossed it to her across the bright plaid blanket. “And they killed a man.”