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Sonya Silverstein jerked awake and sat up, a shiver rippling through her as if the icy fingers of a ghost had touched her neck.
Had Katie cried out for help?
She clutched the sheets and listened for her daughter's voice, for the sound of her small crutches clacking on the wooden floor, but an eerie silence seeped through the cold, dark room instead, and fear gripped her.
Something was wrong. Sonya felt it deep in her bones.
Her heart pounding, she slid from the bed, pushed open the bedroom door and searched the murky gray den for her little girl.
The dying embers of the fire they'd had going earlier glowed. A wild animal howled in the distance. A tree limb scraped the ice-crusted glass, and the shutter flapped against the weathered boards encasing the window.
Wind, vicious and blustery, tore through the dark room, hurling dead leaves across the plank flooring through the open door. Her breath caught.
She had locked the door when she'd gone to bed. Had an intruder broken in while she'd been sleeping?
Panic seized her. Dear God, Katie had to be there. She had to be all right. Katie was everything to her. She was all that mattered.
She'd moved here to Tin City to raise Katie, to give her a safe life. To take solace in the small mountain town and heal from the pain her ex-husband had caused them.
But the house she'd rented was practically in the wilderness. What if Katie had gone outside hunting for the kitty? Or what if a madman had broken in and kidnapped her?
The door to her little girl's room was cracked open, and she pushed it, praying she'd find Katie snuggled in bed with Mr. Buttons, her favorite teddy, and their kitten, Snowball. But Mr. Buttons lay on the floor, and she didn't see the baby cat. The covers were tousled, and the bed was empty.
"Katie!" She searched beneath the bed, then yanked open the closet. But Katie wasn't inside. Frantic, she screamed her name again and checked the bathroom. Katie's Hello Kitty cup. Her damp toothbrush. Her fluffy bedroom slippers.
But no Katie!
Sonya whirled around, scanning the room for Katie's small crutches.
They were gone.
Terror streaked through Sonya as she ran back into the den and grabbed her coat, her hat and a flashlight, then jammed on her snow boots and darted outside.
The bitterly cold Colorado wind clawed at her face as she searched the porch, then the snowpacked ground below, for her daughter or her footprints.
Snow whirled in a blinding haze, covering any tracks that might have lingered. A sob welled in Sonya's throat as she scanned the thick, snow-capped woods surrounding the farmhouse. The rigid cliffs and peaks climbed toward the heavens like stone boulders. While she'd thought they'd offer a perfect place for her to hide, a sanctuary, now they looked ominous, threatening.
Katie was out there somewhere all alone. No telling what dangers lay waiting in the dense patches of firs and aspens. Katie was so small. She'd never survive the elements or be able to fight off an attacker.
"Katie!" A scream tore from deep in her throat, but got lost in the howling wind.
"Save me, Mommy!"
The whisper of her daughter's plea reverberated through the chilling tension. Whether Katie had cried out for real or not, Sonya didn't know. But she heard her daughter's silent plea for help anyway.
She ran into the woods, blindly searching. She had to find her. She couldn't lose Kate. Not now.
FRESH BLOOD dotted the powdery white snow, the scent of death floating in the whistling wind of the forest surrounding Falcon Ridge. Brack Falcon knotted his hands around the flashlight as rage rippled through him. A loud screeching sound had awakened him and brought him outside. And now, out here, he'd heard it again and found fresh blood. He hadn't yet found the source of the blood this time, but he instinctively recognized the pattern.
Another one of the precious creatures of the forest had been attacked. He had discovered several dead birds of prey already this week. Most had been viciously slaughtered and mauled, their talons ripped off, their blood drained as if some creature had virtually sucked the life from them.
What kind of animal would do such a thing? Or could it be a man?
Stories of the ghosts and legends that thrived in Tin City haunted him. The dead that lingered. Miners trapped below the town, screeching in terror, haunting the very place where they'd died--the underground tunnels and caves that had been built as escape routes back in the 1800s.
And now a revival of the tales of wild animals that attacked without provocation. Stories of hybrid and mutant creatures, half human, half animal. With the bizarre attacks on the falcons this week, the fables had risen from the depths of the past, creating panic and hysteria.
All the more reason for the citizens to once again look at the Falcon men with suspicion.
Brack followed the blood-dotted snow, trekking farther into the bowels of the towering aspens and fir trees. The bitterness he'd lived with since he was six years old and his father had been falsely accused of murder ate at his insides. Granted, he and his two brothers, Rex and Deke, had finally helped exonerate his father, and his parents were now reunited, but twenty years of hating the people in the town who'd shunned the boys and their mother had stolen a part of Brack's soul.
A part that was lost forever.
And now his brothers were back at Falcon Ridge, and had decided to settle in Tin City and relocate their private detective agency to Colorado, back at the old homestead. They'd built offices in the basement and had installed high-tech security and state of the art computer systems. Deke and his new wife, Elsie, had bought one of the historical houses in town and were renovating it, while Rex and his wife, Hailey, had built a beautiful Victorian on her parents' property.
Brack had moved in to Falcon Ridge. Alone. But the cries, anger and pain from his childhood still echoed in the stone structure as if twenty years had never passed, as if he were that little boy again watching his father being dragged away to jail.
He'd listened to his mother's sobs at night, had seen the anger and helplessness in his brothers, and he'd virtually shut down. Had learned to suppress any emotion.
Never get close to anyone and you'll never hurt like that again.
And he hadn't.
Instead, he'd pulled away from people and befriended the birds. And over the years, he'd honed his natural instincts with the falcons, instincts he'd inherited from his father and his grandfather before that, until he had such a deep connection with the animals of the forest that they communicated in their own silent language.
The crackle of twigs being severed in the wind jarred him from his reverie. A branch snapped off, and layers of snow and ice pelted him. Above, he heard the flapping of a falcon's wingspan stirring the frigid air, then the faint, heartwrenching cry of a bird in pain.
He picked up his pace, knowing it was too late to save the creature, but hating for it to die alone.
Seconds later, fury welled inside him as he studied the mauled remains. Its body had been ripped apart as if killed by one of its own kind. Blood streaked the muddy white ground. Feathers were scattered across crimson patches of ice, and the eagle's head lay against a stone.
Dammit. The head had been severed.
Rage shot through him, primal and raw, all-consuming.
When he found what or who was doing this, he'd kill it.
Then another cry of terror floated from the distance. It was so faint he had to strain to hear it.
This cry was human.
A chill shot through him, and he took off running.
AN ODD SCREECH rippled through the air, sending a chill through Sonya. What kind of animal made a sound like that? Nothing she'd ever heard before.
The wind was so strong she had to fight to keep from being knocked against the trees. The snow was almost ankle-deep on her--what would it be like for Katie?
Each footstep she took intensified her fears. Katie must be freezing. Terrified. What if she'd fallen and gotten hurt? What if she slipped off one of the ridges? What if a man had her, and he hadn't brought her into the forest?
No, Katie had to be out here. Sonya hadn't heard a car engine. She grabbed a vine and pulled herself along, shining the flashlight across the snowpacked ground, pushing through bramble and broken limbs. The white haze of swirling snow blurred her vision, and she swiped at her eyes, willing them to focus.
Up above, she saw a faint flash. The color red. Katie's red pajamas?
Her pulse raced. "Katie!" She began to run, slogging through the thick weight of the downfall. Cold bit at her cheeks and nose, and her limbs felt heavy. Wet sludge squished beneath her boots, and twigs and dead leaves crackled.
She spotted the red again, just a quick flash, then the outline of a small form. An animal? A deer, maybe?
No, her daughter hobbling on her crutches, her frail body swaying as she struggled against the elements.
Sonya screamed Katie's name again and launched into a jog. A limb shattered, then crashed to the ground. Ice and snow rained down on her. Sonya jumped over the limb and pushed forward. Another splintered and slammed into her arm. She threw it aside and tore through some fallen branches, desperate to get to her little girl.
Suddenly Katie went down. Her small body disappeared, lost in the blizzard. Panic ripped through Sonya. Where was Katie? The heavy snow could bury her alive within minutes.
Swiping at tears, she sprinted faster, searching, praying, turning to scan the area where she'd seen Katie a moment earlier. Finally she spotted one crutch sticking up from the ground. Her heart throbbed as she closed the distance.
Katie was lying in the thick snow and ice, trying to battle her way up against the ferocious wind, but it pulled her down as if it were quicksand.
Oh God, her poor baby.