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    CHAPTER 1

    Sterling snorted, and her left ear twitched to the side. “What do you hear, girl?” Eric asked, stroking his mare’s thick neck. His teeth chattered, and his breath puffed out in a cloud of white fog. She jumped to the right, and pawed at the snowy ground, with jittery, nervous strikes. Her ears pinned flat against her neck, and she glared at the tree line.

    Eric searched the ice-encrusted trees for what may have spooked his horse, but he saw nothing. Creaks and cracks from the trees drifted to his ears, as the branches sagged under the weight of the ice, but aside from that, the forest was silent and still. He stroked her mane and cooed calming words to her, and after a moment, she began to settle.

    Giving her a gentle nudge, he reined Sterling back to the fence. A gust of frosty wind blew through the field, and a shiver prickled over his skin. It had been a long day, rounding up the cattle that had gotten loose during the ice storm last night. Now, if he could just find the broken place in the fence and mend it, he would finally be able to get back into the warmth of his ranch house.

    Sterling walked along the rails slowly, picking her footing with care. The sun shone brightly, winking upon the icy ground and making the field look like a sea of glittering gems. Breathtaking. It was sights like this that reminded Eric why he had chosen to live so far from the village, on his own, surrounded by nature. His mother had called him a fool, not understanding why anyone would choose to farm and live an hour’s ride from civilization if they did not have to. But to Eric, the peace and wilderness was like living a dream.

    After a good twenty minutes, he finally stumbled upon the broken rails which were buried beneath a crusty layer of snow and ice. Eric slid off of Sterling’s back, and gave her a pat as he unhitched the fencing wire from the saddle, and then he got to work, breaking off the crunchy layers of snow, and yanking out the snapped rails.

    Once the three broken rails were down, Eric dug through the snow for the spares, which he knew were resting just below, against the fence. He had just pulled the first rail free, when he heard Sterling snort and squeal.

    “Settle down, girl,” he said. He dropped the rail in place and turned, pacing towards her. Her eyes were wild—panicked—and her nostrils flared. He put his hands up and he crouched, slumping his shoulders, trying to make his bulky frame smaller and less intimidating. The last thing he needed was for her to bolt, and leave him to walk back to the house in this frigid weather. “Easy girl,” he murmured, as he continued towards her.

    Sterling pranced around nervously, watching him with frightened eyes. She snorted and began to back up with her ears lying flat against her neck. Eric reached out for a rein, slowly, carefully, and just as his hand closed around it, she let out a piercing high-pitched roar, and then she reared.

    Too close, a voice in his head shouted, and he scrambled back. His foot caught a patch of ice and slid out from under him, and he landed on his back with a jarring thud, sliding closer to her and cracking his head against frozen ground. Her hooves came down fast and hard, so close to him, that he was certain she would come down right on him. He tried to roll out of the way, but he couldn’t move quickly enough. And in a blink, she was on him, her hoof came down on his stomach, and then it jumped across and skidded down his right side, ripping at his skin and muscles. She roared again, drowning out Eric’s wheezing cry. For a spilt-second, she looked down at him; her eyes were wide with fear, and then she bolted, racing away through the field.

    Eric couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. Black spots danced through his vision, and a stabbing pain shot through his head all the way down to his toes. A warm wetness spread along the base of his skull, and his stomach convulsed with pain.

    Time stood still. His ears rung, and he couldn’t catch his breath. He tried to sit up, but he couldn’t. Even the slightest movement sent hot waves of pain coursing through his body, paralyzing him. Get up! You need to get up! he told himself over and over, trying to coax his body to ignore the shooting pain and begging his mind to fight for survival. But no matter how much his brain wanted to survive, his body was shutting down—giving up.

    Eric didn’t know how long he had been lying on the ground, fighting against his body. It could have been seconds, or it might have been hours when he heard the crunch of snow nearby. It was excruciatingly loud, and the sound sent shockwaves through his head. A small sense of hope gripped at his chest. He forced in a burning breath, and opened his mouth to yell for help just as a shadow fell over him. He blinked and shifted his gaze, looking for the source of the shadow, and he found it, but in that moment, all he noticed was the pair of blazing red eyes staring down at him.

    “Demon,” Eric breathed and gasped, a wet and painful sound, and he coughed, choking on his own saliva. He tried to scramble away, but the pain ceased him, rendering the effort useless. The demon smiled, which might have been meant as a friendly gesture, but the dagger sharp fangs that protruded from his mouth were anything but welcoming.

    “What’s your name, son?” the demon asked, folding his arms over his thick chest. His voice was like velvet, alluring and comforting. Eric froze and looked back at him, mesmerized by the sound. The demon was tall, at least four inches taller than Eric’s own six feet, and he had the same muscular frame. He had no jacket or gloves, only wearing a thin short sleeve shirt and woven cotton slacks. His skin was flawless, the color of ivory.

    He chuckled, and his blazing eyes danced with amusement. “Your name?” he repeated, and his smile grew.

    Eric opened his mouth to speak, but the words were lodged in his throat. He cleared it, and his voice shook as he answered, “Eric Carter.”

    The demon watched him with a thoughtful expression for a moment, and his crimson eyes faded to sky-blue. He bent down, crouching beside Eric in the snow. He reached out, ripped open Eric’s coat, and lifted his shirt. Blood pooled below his skin where Sterling had landed, blackening his stomach.

    “Well, Mr. Carter, it looks like you are about to die,” he said with a matter-of-fact tone, as if it was common knowledge, obvious even.

    “Yes, sir,” Eric replied breathlessly, wincing as the demon poked at his stomach. For a moment, he wondered why he was not trying to run, but then he looked back at the angelic face of the demon, towering over him, and then down at his stomach, and he knew fear was pointless and running, impossible. Death was inevitable. Even if he could fight the pain and get to his feet, he would die from his injuries.

    “Is that what you want? To die?” he asked curiously, cocking his head to the side almost like a bird.

    Eric thought about the question, as if there could be more than one possible answer to it, and then he shook his throbbing head from side to side and said, “No, sir.” His voice was a gravelly whisper. “Are you going to kill me?”

    The demon cocked his head to the side again, and looked at him with an intensity Eric had never seen before. It was a complicated look, filled with so many conflicting emotions that he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what any of them meant. The demon sighed, a long and gusty sound. His eyes grew wide and clouded, and the pleasant cerulean fogged as a milky film swallowed them. He lifted his wrist to his mouth, biting down, and when he pulled it away, blood pooled on his skin. He slid closer, cradling his wrist as if he was trying not to let any of the blood to spill onto the snow, and before Eric could comprehend what was happening, the demon pressed his wound against Eric’s lips and said, “Drink.”

    Eric squirmed and gasped. The movement sent shockwaves of pain coursing through his body. The demon cupped the back of his head, and held him firmly, with unyielding strength. Eric could feel the warm blood on his lips, seeping into his mouth, and his stomach rolled. But then he tasted it. Tangy and sweet and spicy. It was delicious and disgusting all at once, and Eric couldn’t stop himself. He opened his mouth, latching onto the demon’s wrist and drank, swallowing mouthfuls as quickly as he could.

    The demon leaned in closer, but Eric didn’t care. All he could think about was the mouthwatering blood that filled his mouth in a waterfall of goodness. Skin tingling warmth spread through his body.

    The demon dropped his hand from the back of Eric’s head, and then suddenly, his mouth was on Eric’s neck. Eric felt the demon’s teeth sink into his skin, but he didn’t care. Nothing mattered except tasting the nectar of his blood.

    It was when he pulled his arm away from Eric’s mouth, that Eric noticed the demon’s teeth were no longer in his neck. The disconnection felt cold, sending shivers along his skin. His eyes became heavy and drowsiness smothered him. He wanted to ask for more—demand more, anything to bring back the warmth and ease the pain of death, but his voice eluded him. He stared into the milky eyes, pleadingly, but the demon just smiled a little.

    The shivers came quicker, and Eric’s body convulsed from the cold. The pain in his stomach faded. It felt as if his mind couldn’t take it anymore and had given up—shut down. Darkness grew around him. Then, despite all efforts, he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer, and they drifted shut.

    CHAPTER 2

    “Are we going to keep him?” a musical voice questioned, stirring Eric from his sleep.

    Eric groaned, rolling onto his side. His throat was burning, parched. He smacked his mouth, trying to get some saliva moving to ease the painful flames that licked up his esophagus. His mouth was throbbing as if it had its own pulse. Eric scrubbed at his face and blinked awake. The room was dark, with only a soft flickering glow from a candle which rested on a table beside the bed that he occupied. But even in the dark, he knew that the bed was not his own, and this room was not in his ranch house. His heart jumped into his throat and he sprung up, sitting in the bed.

    His eyes swept the room quickly. There was a small window in front of the bed, with light curtains pushed to the side, revealing that night had fallen. The inky black sky was streaked with approaching clouds, and small flakes of snow had begun to drift down. The room was small and welcoming, with whitewashed walls, and even hardwood flooring. The furniture was sparse but in good repair; a dresser nestled under the window, the small bedside table, and the bed.

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