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Egesa Springs is a quiet, picturesque town nestled deep in a valley along the Pennsylvania mountains, but then the sun goes down. Children disappear and adults vanish or die in mysterious accidents.
Cierra Lancing believes she knows the secrets buried in Egesa Springs. She has healed from her nearly fatal wounds and returns to the town with her pistol and dog. Unwilling to trust anyone other than herself, she's determined to find the children she was taken from and to protect her youngest daughter from the doom the town has planned for her. What Cierra doesn't expect to find is love with the man who has watched over her children while she was gone, but does she dare trust Tristen Durant?
Neither of them realizes the evil hiding beneath the town or the mysteries living within the mansion inn. With the help of an 1827 murder victim, Cierra struggles to overcome a curse placed on the town over a hundred and fifty years before to save herself and her children.
Caroline stirred. She felt the smooth pillowcase against her cheek and heard her husband's soft, even breaths. In the distance, a semi's engine brake rattled through the clear night. Certain the truck was what had awakened her, she untangled her hand from the twisted blanket and sleepily reached for Tom's warm shoulder before settling back into her pillow.
Hinges creaked from down the hall.
Caroline opened her eyes and listened until she could hear the blood roar in her ears.
Night was in its darkest hours. No matter how hard she strained, she could see nothing of the hallway lying beyond the bedroom threshold several feet away. She wondered if maybe it was her children but Carl and Jenny always called out for her and Timmy hadn't awakened at night since he was a baby.
Caroline threw back the covers and swung her feet to the chilled hardwood floor. Not bothering to reach for her robe, she peeked around the corner of the doorway and glanced toward the children's rooms first.
A strange, rotten odor drifted to her. She turned to the stairs and looked into hideous, yellow eyes.
The figure was tall and shadowed but the face was pale with sunken shadows around revolting eyes. He stood two feet from her and cradled her son in his long arms. Timmy slept. His blond hair was pushed up on one side and in his little arm, he clutched his worn blankey and stuffed puppy.
The man held Caroline's gaze with his own. His eyes burned into her mind. Her temples thumped. The man turned and descended the stairs noiselessly and with methodical ease.
Caroline reached out for Timmy, clutching the wall with one hand. Her fingertips throbbed. Agony clasped her heart.
"No, please, no." She stumbled to the top of the staircase.
The outside door flew open, defying its locks and deadbolt. Caroline gasped as if her soul tore from her body. She cringed in a silent scream.
How could she go on without her baby? She knew from the moment he was born he would be lost. He suffered the fate of being the second born son, but foolishly she had let herself hope.
The man glared up at her. His dark lips formed a twisted smirk before he vanished into the night. The door swooshed closed.
Caroline couldn't let Timmy go. It couldn't happen this way. The thought of never hearing his voice as he told her he loved her, of never feeling his feathery soft kisses on her cheek, and of never seeing his shy smile and squinting eyes again crushed her.
Caroline slid her bare foot down a step. What she thought she could do to get Timmy back, she didn't know.
An arm wrapped around her shoulder. She whirled and fell into Tom.
"We can't go," he whispered in her ear. His hot breath rescued her from the fear storming through her.
"We can't just forget him. I can't do it." She clung to Tom, digging her fingertips into his bare chest. Wracking sobs overwhelmed her. Tom pulled her closer.
"You must stay here," he said. His voice was strong and demanding, the tone he used when gaining control of the animals or the attention of the children. "No matter what happens, you stay here. You must, for Jenny and Carl, if they awake."
He helped her to sit at the top stairs and went into the bedroom only to reappear carrying his shotgun. Caroline sucked in a fresh breath filled with hope. Tom would get Timmy back. He knew how to get impossible things done. He always had.
Tom knelt beside her, kissed her. She took his face in her hands and smoothed his soft beard. He wiped her tears with one work-toughened thumb.
"Don't leave this house for any reason. You hear?" His eyes sparkled in the dim lamplight from their room. Caroline nodded.
Tom crept down the stairs. The deadbolt clanked loudly in the silent rooms and he opened their house to the night once again. The cold breeze rushed in and snaked around Caroline, carrying with it the raw scent of decay. She covered her nose with her hands and watched Tom step onto the porch. His shoulder muscles rippled as he readied the shotgun. He looked to his right and slowly turned to his left. He moved another step forward.
A nerve-numbing snarl from the depths of hell rattled the air. Tom lifted the shotgun barrel, but a huge, black beast plowed him down before he could fire. It shoved its narrow snout deep in his neck and tore away flesh.
Caroline screamed. She covered her ears against the awful crunching sounds and stared into her husband's dying eyes.
It was her fault he had gone after Timmy. They should've let him go.
Cierra sprang up and gasped for air. Something was wrong, very wrong. She could feel it churning in the deepest pit of her instincts.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she expected to see men surrounding her with black hoods over their faces, men with voices she knew.
She yanked her pistol from the top of her suitcase and aimed it into the night, sweeping it from one side of the room to the other. Sweat soaked her t-shirt and beaded across her forehead.
No one was there.
Her lungs burned and her heart pounded her ribs, threatening to renew the pain of the breaks and surgery. She dropped the gun on the pillow and clasped her hands to her throat and neck willing herself to calm down.
Finally able to suck in luscious air, Cierra reached into the darkness to feel the soft warmth of her dog. She pulled Soldier closer and rested her head on his side. He licked her hands reassuringly. He wouldn't let anyone near the house without letting her know.
Knowledge and the big dog's presence didn't stop the nightmares though. This time Cierra had no recollection of what awakened her. She stared into the darkness of the lonely house listening to Soldier's heartbeats until the cold sweat seemed to seep back into her pores. Still, she recalled no nightmare, and she wished she could.
Struggling against the stiffness in her knees, Cierra stood and shuffled to the door. The hinges creaked as she opened it and looked out into the illuminated hallway. Light spilled from the bathroom several feet away and washed over the open bedroom door across from her. Cierra crept to the girls' room. The carpet felt clean and soft under her feet.
The windows on the end did little to penetrate the night, but Cierra could make out the shapes of the beds and dresser. The smell of fabric softener drifted from the new quilts and curtains. Cierra slid her fingertips over the fluffy bedspread. One of her favorite times of day with her daughters had been bedtime. After warm baths, she would snuggle up with them and a book, something her own mother had never done, but the boyfriends had tried. Cierra had learned to fight her mother's lovers off early, earning slaps across the face or a fist to the stomach as a bedtime kiss.
Cierra hoped her girls hadn't learned to dread bedtime as she had, and she wondered how much they had grown. The last memory Cierra had of her babies was of watching them close their eyes and drift into sweet, innocent slumber.
The men had grabbed her when she stepped outside the nursery. She never saw her girls again, except in her dreams. She saw the men with black hoods in her nightmares more often. They were the reason she had purchased the four-inch dagger and 9mm Berretta. The time would come when she faced them again and took back her girls. She wouldn't let her daughters live through hell.
Two years of physical therapy and weight training had helped her become stronger and more lethal than ever. She only hoped she had the strength to hold her anger and fear in check because if she didn't, her strategy would fail. And failure wasn't an option. If she failed this time, Kacie would be lost forever like so many children before her.
Cierra slid down to the floor and leaned against the bed she intended for Kacie. Fear crept into her heart again and she felt certain it had something to do with her daughters. She hoped she hadn't waited too long to go back.
Standing, Cierra decided to take her suitcases to her truck. She couldn't wait any longer, and she wouldn't be able to sleep more. She packed up her pistol and ammunition and lugged her suitcases down the narrow stairway and out to her pick-up.
In the east, the horizon slowly brightened, chasing away the night. Cierra stuffed her bags into the back of the quad cab, putting the smallest case on the back seat. She again doubted her choice to keep the Berretta locked up as it was, but continued to hope she wouldn't need it for a few days. She hoped no one would discover who she really was for at least that long.
Cierra checked the engine oil, transmission fluid, and coolant before she walked back to the big country porch. She rubbed the chill from her bare arms and watched the sky turn pink, purple, and then blue. It was a beautiful display, promising of a clear Ohio day, but it didn't lighten her anxiety.
She went to the kitchen, wiped the counters clean, and filled a thermos with coffee, pale with cream and sugar. She set the thermos and her keys on the counter by the door and pulled her jacket from the closet.
The heavy, flip top, cigarette lighter fell from the pocket and thumped on the floor. Cierra gazed at it for a moment, wondering why she continued to carry around her mother's lighter. In part, the cigarettes and drugs the lighter had lit contributed to the woman's death, but for some reason Cierra couldn't toss the thing. She picked it up and caressed the carved eagle on its front before stuffing it deeper into the pocket.
A soft knock sounded at the door. She turned to see Collin Lancing watching her through the screen. He stepped inside. His graying hair shimmered in the brightening sunlight.
"I'm heading to work, thought I'd stop in and see if all's okay." He glanced at the things on the counter. "Are you disappearing on me again?"
"I didn't know I had to okay my life with you now."
"No, I didn't mean to imply that, it's just, it took me a lot of years to find you. It's not something I want to repeat."
Cierra stole a quick look into his blue eyes, eyes too similar to hers, and gathered her things from the counter. From as early as she could remember, she was told her father was dead. After she regained consciousness in the ICU, Collin suddenly surfaced and told her he hadn't died, he'd been married and not to her mother.
"I've got to get going."
"Cierra, look, I really want a chance to get to know you."
"I don't have time for this right now."
"Is it something I can help you with? Anything you need, the jet, money?"
Cierra shook her head and walked to her truck. The only thing she needed from him was his money, and she'd gotten her fair share, but money couldn't stop the hurt and anger. She couldn't bring herself to shun him completely, though. There were times she detested her own soft heart.
Soldier jumped up into the backseat and Cierra climbed inside the cab before Collin took hold of her door. His brows arched up, accenting the sorrow in his big eyes. She shoved the key into the ignition.
"I'll be back, I bought a damn house, of course I'll be back." She shifted to first gear and coasted the truck ahead.
Collin pushed the door closed. Cierra accelerated, not glancing in the rearview mirror. A long drive loomed before her. She couldn't put it off any longer, and she couldn't let the situation with Collin Lancing distract her. His desire to have a relationship with her was his problem, not hers. Today she had to leave and stay focused on the tasks ahead.
Kacie would be four in less than two weeks.
© T.C. McMullen