Ten years later
"Please, Deke, you have to find Mrs. Timmons's daughter,
Deke Falcon grimaced at his older brother, Rex, and Rex's
new wife Hailey. Their lives had been in an upheaval for
twenty years, ever since his father had been convicted of
murdering Hailey's parents. Rex had fought tooth and nail
this last year to free their father, and finally,
uncovered the truth about the brutal slaying of the Lyle
Now Hailey wanted his help. How could he deny his
brother's wife after all the pain she had endured? After
the way she'd blamed herself for their father's lost years
when she'd suffered herself. And Rex loved her senseless
so now she was family, too.
Mrs. Timmons's hand trembled as she reached for his. Anger
had been his friend for the past few years, but the subtle
gentleness in her touch made him want to let go of the
emotion. Trouble was, he didn't know how.
"This is the last picture I have of her," Mrs. Timmons
said softly. "She was only four years old when she went
He studied the faded, worn-out picture, knew Mrs. Timmons
had looked at it constantly the same way he had the photo
of his father that he'd carried in his wallet for two
Elsie Timmons, at four, was a cute kid with a gap-toothed
smile, a freckled pale face and long dark curly hair
pulled back in a ponytail. Her big brown eyes were almost
Where was the little girl? Had her father kidnapped her,
or had something more sinister happened? Was she lost
"I thought my husband took her to hurt me," she said,
"but when they found that grave in the woods, I w-was
certain she was dead."
"Those bones were too old to be Elsie's," Rex said.
"Which means she might still be alive and out there."
Hailey's face brightened with hope. Hailey and Elsie had
been childhood friends, and she had bonded with Elsie's
Tears shimmered in Mrs. Timmons's worried eyes. "I...don't
know if she'll want to see me," she said. "Or what her
father told her about me, but I can't leave this world
without trying to find her one more time."
"Hush that talk." Hailey squeezed the older woman's
hands. "You're going to live forever, and Elsie is coming
back to us. I just know it."
Anxiety wormed inside Deke's chest. What if he failed?
What if he found Elsie and she wanted nothing to do with
her mother? Or what if something awful had happened to her
and he had to bring back bad news?
Could Deanna Timmons survive it?
Loyalty to her won out. She was the only person in town
who'd stood beside Deke's mother when his father had been
arrested. And he knew the pain of having someone ripped
from his arms. His hope had dwindled with every year his
father had been imprisoned just as Mrs. Timmons's hope had.
"All right. Do you have any information that might help?"
Mrs. Timmons smiled although her lower lip trembled.
"I have the files the private investigator kept when he
searched for her twenty years ago.At one time, he traced
my ex south. I believe it was Alabama or maybe Tennessee."
She handed him a folder. "Thank you so much, Mr. Falcon. I
can't tell you what it would mean to see my daughter
Deke swallowed hard. She didn't have to tell him. He'd
felt the same way when his father had been reunited with
Although nothing could replace the years they'd lost....
His chest heaved with tension as he finally looked up at
Mrs. Timmons. As a falconer, he had a strong calling to
the wild, to the animalistic nature within him. At times,
he also experienced dark emotions, and his senses seemed
Those instincts told him that if he found Elsie Timmons,
she would be nothing like the child in the picture.
Something bad had happened when she'd left Falcon Ridge.
She was entrenched in evil and darkness.
He'd have to figure out the trouble when he found her. And
then he'd decide what to do with the truth.
Sweat beaded his lip as the need to flee into the woods
gripped him. Thankfully, he managed to control his tremors
as he shook her hand. "I'll do everything I can to find
her, Mrs. Timmons."
His chest clenched at her trusting look, and he turned and
disappeared outside. Seconds later, he ran through the
woods, filling his nostrils with the scents of nature.
Lifting his head toward the heavens, he searched the sky
for the birds of prey that had come to be his friends.
Other than his brothers, they were the only ones he
trusted. The only ones that could assuage the bitterness
DEATH WHISPERED her name.
Hattie Mae Hodges clutched the bedcovers with gnarled
fingers as she peered through the blackness, searching for
help. In her heart, she knew it was too late. She had made
a deal with the devil years ago and had no one to blame
Still, she could not succumb to the terror. And she had no
right to beg for mercy.
The sense of evil whirled around her, filling the hollow
eaves and shadows of the house, reverberating through each
icy corner. Trees rattled and shook snow against the thin
glass panes, shrouding any remaining light from the deep
haunting woods that surrounded them.
The sound of a footstep broke the eerie quiet. A heavy
boot. A shuffle of his gimp leg. The smell of death.
"Go away and leave me in peace," she murmured, too frail
and weak now to escape her bed or his unwelcome visit.
"I warned you, Hattie Mae. You must take your promises and
the truth with you to your grave."
A second later, his hands closed around her neck. Darkness
engulfed her as she choked for air, the blinding pain of
his grip making her body jerk involuntarily. His sinister
laugh reverberated through the room, muffled only slightly
by the thick feather pillow he shoved over her face.
Images of the lost girls floated across her mind, as vivid
as they were the day the children had come to her. Ann.
Jessie. Marge. Carrie. Wanda. Felicity. Torrie. Elsie.
God...little Elsie Timmons.
Hattie Mae had promised them help. Redemption. Hope.
But she had let them all down.
Their terrified screams and cries of horror haunted her at
night. The innocent babies stolen from their families,
crying for their mothers long into the twilight. The
girls' hollow, empty eyes filled with anguish as their own
young were viciously stripped away, their bodies left with
gaping holes where life had once grown, replaced with a
pain so deep that it clawed at their insides, all the way
to the cores of their very being.
All because of her husband.
No, it had been her fault.
She gasped for air, the acrid burn of her stomach rising
to her throat. In her mind, the image of his charred body
taunted her. God help her. She should have tried to help
But she hadn't. He had deserved to die, just as she did.
Her chest felt heavy. Her limbs weighted. Her head was
spinning. Tiny dots of lights twirled, then faded.
Hattie Mae went limp, too close to death to struggle any
longer, ready to welcome the peace if any existed.
Please, God, forgive me. I will find a way to expose the
sinful secrets of Wildcat Manor, she silently vowed. And
to atone for my sins, if you let me.
A black cauldron of despair swallowed her. She had no
power in death. Her soul was lost completely.
Unless she found a way to return from the grave to haunt
Two weeks later
ELSIE TIMMONS STARED at the letter from Hattie Mae Hodges
in shock. She hadn't heard from the woman in ten years,
had not spoken to her or heard Howard Hodges's name during
that time, either. But their faces and the ghosts of
Wildcat Manor had followed her everywhere she'd been.
And she'd lived all over the South since. Running from
town to town. From name to name. Hiding out. Trying to
find her way. Trying to escape the darkness and evil that
tainted her own soul.
She blinked back tears of pain and fear as memories washed
over her in a blinding rush. She had to compartmentalize
them as she'd always done. It was the only way she'd
Then she began to read.
I hope this letter finds you well. Unfortunately, if
you've received it, it means that I'm no longer alive. I
carry my sins with me, my dear, but I want you to know how
much I regret letting you girls down. I know I offered you
hope yet stood idly by and allowed you to be robbed of
that and so much more.
God may never forgive me, Elsie, but that's my cross to
bear. I don't deserve your forgiveness, but I heard that
you were a social worker now. You will do the good I
should have done. For that reason, I am leaving Wildcat
Manor to you in hopes that you'll turn it into the kind of
place it should have been.
May God be with you, child, and protect you always.
Hattie Mae Hodges Elsie's hand trembled at the mere
thought of returning to Wildcat Manor. Vivid images of
Howard Hodges's body erupting into flames cut into her
thoughts, the nightmares that destroyed her sleep shifting
in front of her eyes. Outside, the wind howled through the
mountains, the brisk temperature swirling through the thin
rattling window panes, the ominous clouds threatening a
snowstorm or at the least, heavy rains.
Her hand fell to her stomach as other memories flooded
her. The shrill screams of the girls. The scent of
chemicals and dust and...bodily fluids. The beady eyes of
their tormentor flickering in the darkness as he
approached in the heat of the night. The hollow feeling
that consumed her afterward, the devastating pain of
knowing that she had lost everything.
That she was not worthy of love.
No, she could not return to Wildcat Manor. Not now. Not
Not even to try and make things right.
DEKE HAD SPENT TWO WEEKS tracking down Elsie Timmons.
First to a hovel in Nashville. Then to Alabama. Then to
Georgia. And now back to Tennessee to a small town set so
deep into the mountains that a person might get lost
But he and his brothers had expert resources. Their
private investigative business had been housed in Arizona
for the past few years, but with Rex's return to Falcon
Ridge, they had established a second office at Falcon
Elsie was on the run. Never stayed in one place for very
long. Which meant she was either scared or hiding
Determined to find the answers, he parked in front of
Bodine's B & B, then made his way up the sloped, graveled
drive. A view of the mountains offered a peaceful retreat
for guests, the valleys and gorges behind almost as
magnificent as the ones in Colorado. A handmade wreath
adorned the front door, composed of dried flowers and
ribbons, and a three-foot-tall metal sculpture of a
covered wagon graced the porch, flanked by two rocking
chairs and an empty whiskey barrel.
Maybe the case would be a piece of cake. He'd introduce
himself, inform Elsie that her mother had sent him looking
for her and she'd jump at the chance to go home. The hair
on the back of his neck bristled, though, mocking his