There he was, Marcus Danby, dead in the ravine.
His eyes were open and he stared up at heaven. His limbs were twisted at odd angles, making him look like an image created by a mad artist.
“Marcus!” Olivia Gordon cried his name as she dismounted and swiftly scampered down the rocks to his side. Like an idiot, she hunkered down by him, touching him, speaking, praying that somehow he was still alive as he lay there.
But, of course, he wasn’t. She studied his face—weathered, worn, beautiful with character—and silent tears slid down her cheeks.
“Marcus,” she whispered, closing his eyes. Maybe it was the wrong thing to do—maybe the medical examiner needed to see him exactly as he’d been found. But she wasn’t leaving him now and she couldn’t bear to see his eyes open. He’d been staring up at the heavens, she thought. Staring up at the sky above him.
Ironically, the sky was exceptionally beautiful tonight. It was one of those twilights when the moon rose before the sun set completely, and as the sun continued its fall, sinking lower and lower into the horizon, a soft, opaque glow seemed to settle over the landscape. The hills here, just outside Nashville, Tennessee, appeared to be part of some kind of fairy-tale kingdom. Their rich shades of autumn—the gold, orange and crimson leaves on the trees—highlighted the emerald-green grasses. A slight coolness touched the air, making it clear and comfortable to breathe.
The sky and the landscape were what Marcus had seen as he died, Olivia reminded herself. It was why Marcus had loved this area so much, this place where he’d been born. Maybe there was something fitting in that, something poetic.
And yet... No question, Marcus had loved this countryside. He’d known it intimately. For that very reason, it seemed impossible that he’d fallen into this rocky ravine when he’d followed these same paths, on foot or on horseback, almost every day of his life.
Olivia heard Shiloh paw the ground. She looked up at her horse; he was obviously sensing her emotions, the change in her energy.
“Easy, boy, easy,” Olivia said softly. “We have to wait here.” Fresh tears stung her eyes and cascaded down her cheeks. She wanted to rise up and throw her arms around Shiloh’s neck, feel the warmth of this living creature.
That, she knew, would be life-affirming.
Like all the animals at the Horse Farm—the therapy center Marcus Danby had founded and where Olivia worked—Shiloh was a rescue horse. Near starvation, he’d been found in the Florida Redlands. Animal activists from the state had arranged his transport to the Nashville area and there was something about him that had made him special to Olivia from the first time she’d seen him. He’d been a pile of bones, wild and terrified of people; he’d tried, more than once, to run her into a building to get her off his back. While the focus of the Horse Farm was teaching people to trust again—through their relationships with animals—Shiloh was, to Olivia, one of her best success stories.
Marcus had always told her that what she’d done with Shiloh was impressive, but what she managed with people was equally beautiful.
“Oh, Marcus, what did you do?” she whispered. He’d probably been missing long before any of them realized he was gone, because Marcus kept no set hours, didn’t see patients and came and went as he chose. He’d founded the Horse Farm; it was his passion and his life. But while he loved to make sudden appearances and engage with patients, he did so in his own time and on his own terms. He’d been a wreck of a man himself—bipolar, an addict, homeless and an ex-con—when he’d found a horse on the small farm he’d, for some reason, been left through a family inheritance. Like Shiloh, the animal had been starved and beaten by a cruel master and was terrified. In earning the horse’s trust and love, Marcus had learned to care about himself. He’d told Olivia once that he’d been so afraid something horrible would happen to the horse without him, he’d become determined to live.
In saving that horse, Marcus had saved himself. It wasn’t that he hadn’t grown up around animals; he had. His father had raised some of the finest racing horses in Tennessee. Maybe because he’d had money as a child, Marcus had known that happiness had nothing to do with wealth. When he inherited the family land, he had no interest in racehorses. He cared about people—damaged people. He’d been miraculously fixed by a horse and he went on to find out how to help others in the same way.
Olivia adored Marcus.
Had adored him, she told herself. No, she did adore him. All that he’d been and all that he’d taught her would stay with her forever.
He’d lived in a small house on the property, about a quarter mile from the stables, and the staff at the Horse Farm only knew he was gone because Sammy, his golden retriever—another rescue animal—had come to the stables, wet, tail between his legs, anxious. He’d been limping because he’d managed to gash his left leg quite badly.
Aaron Bentley, managing director of the Horse Farm, had tried to believe that Marcus had driven somewhere and Sammy had hurt himself trying to catch up with him.
But Marcus hadn’t driven anywhere—not on his own, anyway. His old Ford pickup was still in the driveway. And Olivia knew Marcus would’ve died before allowing any harm to come to his beloved Sammy.
So they’d all become extremely worried. Aaron had called in the local authorities and they’d set up a search; Olivia had the backwoods acreage, while others had been assigned the pond area, the pastures and the adjoining farms, businesses and residences.
They had now been out searching for hours in their designated areas. She and Aaron, plus the other two therapists from the Horse Farm—Mason Garlano and Mariah Naughton. As well, the stable bosses, Drew Dicksen and Sydney Roux, had joined the search. And so had Deputy Sheriff Vine and his partner, Jimmy Callahan. Only Sandra Cheever—known as Mama Cheever—the house manager for the offices, had remained behind. There were miles of pastureland and forest out there—enough to keep them riding and searching for many more hours. But dusk seemed to be coming on fast.
Twilight. Twilight in these hills.
A dangerous time up here—if you didn’t know your way.
But Marcus hadn’t fallen in the twilight. He’d had his accident, if accident it was, in the brightness of day....
He was cold now, stone cold. Olivia didn’t have many skills in forensics, but she was certain that he’d been here for some time. He hadn’t fallen in the dusk—a time when a tourist might become disoriented among the rolling hills, forested slopes and rocky dips.
This time of day frightened many people here. Kids told scary tales over campfires about the Civil War soldiers who continued to haunt the rugged terrain. Marcus had loved the legends; he’d once told her with a wink that the soldiers were his friends. In fact, he’d confided that Brigadier General Rufus Cunningham had been a big help when he’d decided to clean up—but he’d hoped his conversations with the long-dead man might cease once he was off the rum and heroin.She was down in a ravine with a dead man who’d been a mentor to her, and it was getting dark. This wasn’t the time to mourn him. Only a few minutes had ticked by since she’d found him. There was no point in wishing him alive. Death was unmistakable.She dug into her pocket for her cell phone, praying it would work. Satellite communication here wasn’t always the best.But she called Aaron and he answered on the second ring. She got the words out, hard as they were, and told him she’d found Marcus, explaining that he appeared to have fallen.“CPR. Do artificial respiration,” Aaron said urgently.Olivia looked at Marcus. She had truly loved the man.He was dead. He was cold; he was gone.There was no way she was attempting artificial respiration.“He’s dead, Aaron.”“You can’t be sure!”“Aaron, I’m sure. I am not trying artificial respiration. Get the officers to this location. Please.”She hung up. And then she waited.Full darkness was coming, and coming soon. She felt that she had to keep her hand on Marcus’s shoulder, that she had to be there with him. She hated that he’d been alone when he died.She hated that she was alone now and that the last mauve of twilight was turning to gray and would soon become black.She always rode with a flashlight, but it was at the top of the ravine in the bag she’d attached to her saddle.She looked up as Shiloh whinnied. The horse pranced nervously.“Don’t you leave me, boy!” she called to him. “It’s all right—”She broke off in midsentence.She hadn’t actually grown up here—not right here, about twenty miles west of Nashville off I-40—but she’d grown up in the city. She’d often come out to her uncle’s small ranch during her lifetime. She knew the legends of the area.Many times, on foggy nights, she’d imagined that she’d seen them and seen him. In the mists that covered the hills, she’d seen the Rebel soldiers, cast from Nashville in 1862, trying to fight their way back, retreating in the darkness of night. She’d imagined the bloodstained battlefields; she’d heard the cries of wounded and dying soldiers.She’d imagined seeing Brigadier General Rufus Cunningham, tall and straight and ever sorrowful at the death toll of the war as he watched his threadbare and beaten men ride by.But she’d never seen him so damned clearly.There, just above her, his white warhorse, Loki, stood feet from her own nervous Shiloh. The general stared down at her with sorrow and concern. He looked around as if he’d appointed himself her guardian.For a moment, she almost felt there was something malignant nearby, some evil that crept toward her in the night.... Was that why the general was there? To protect her?Then she felt as if a cold wind settled near her. She felt something...like a touch on her shoulder.She turned.There was Marcus Danby. Watching her.She blinked; she looked down.