Origins (Chapter 14)

I woke the next morning and stretched my arms outward, dejected when I touched nothing but goose-down pillows. A slight indentation in the mattress next to me was the only proof that what had happened had been real, and not one of the fever dreams I'd been having since Rosalyn's death.

Of course, I couldn't expect Katherine to have spent the night with me. Not with her maid waiting at the carriage house, and not with the way the servants talked. She'd told me herself that this had to be our secret, that she couldn't risk ruining her reputation. Not that she had to worry about that. I wanted us to have our own secret world, together.

I wondered when she'd slipped away, remembering the feeling of her in my arms, a warmth and lightness I'd never felt before. I felt whole, and at peace, and the thoughtof Rosalyn was just a vague memory, a character in an unpleasant story that I'd simply put out of my mind.

Now my mind was consumed with thoughts of Katherine: how she pulled the curtains closed as the summer storm pelted hail on the windows, how she'd allowed my hands to explore her exquisite body. At one point, I was caressing her neck when my hands fell on the clasp of the ornate blue cameo necklace she always wore. I began to unclasp it when Katherine had roughly pushed me away.

"Don't!" she'd said sharply, her hands flying to the clasp, making sure nothing had been disturbed. But then, once she patted the charm into place on the hollow of her neck, she'd resumed kissing me.

I blushed as I remembered all the other places she did allow me to touch.

I swung my legs out of bed, walked toward the hand basin, and splashed water on my face. I looked in the mirror and smiled. The dark circles were gone from my eyes, and it no longer felt like an effort to walk from one side of the room to the other. I changed into my waistcoat and dark-blue breeches and left the chambers humming.

"Sir?" Alfred asked on the stairs. He was holding a silver-domed platter–my breakfast. My lip curled in disgust. How could I have lain in bed for an entire week when there was a whole world to discover with Katherine?

"I'm quite well, thank you, Alfred," I said as I took the stairs two at a time. The storm from last night had disappeared as quickly as it came. In the sunroom, the early-morning light was sparkling through the floor-to- ceiling windows, and the table was decorated with freshly cut daisies. Damon was already there, drinking a mug of coffee while flipping through the morning paper from Richmond.

"Hello, brother!" Damon said, holding up his coffee mug as if he were toasting me. "My, you look well. Did our afternoon ride do you some good, after all?"

I nodded and sat opposite him, glancing at the headlines on the paper. The Union had taken Fort Morgan. I wondered where exactly that was.

"I don't know why we even get the paper. It's not like Father cares about anything except the stories he makes up in his head," Damon said disgustedly.

"If you hate it here so much, why don't you just leave?" I asked, suddenly annoyed with Damon's constant grumbling. Maybe it would be better if he were gone, so that Father wouldn't be so frustrated. An odious voice in the back of my mind silently added, And so I don't have to think about you and Katherine, swinging on the porch swing together.

Damon raised an eyebrow. "Well, I'd be remiss if I didn't say things were interesting here." His lips curved in a private sort of smile that made me suddenly want to grab his shoulders and shake him.

The force of my emotions surprised me, so much so that I had to sit down and shove into my mouth a muffin from the overflowing basket on the table. I'd never felt jealous of my brother before, but suddenly I was dying to know: Had Katherine ever snuck up to his bedroom? She couldn't have. Last night, she'd seemed so nervous about getting caught, having me promise over and over again that I'd never breathe a word to anybody about what we'd done.

Betsy, the cook, came in, her arms laden with plates of grits, bacon, and eggs. My stomach rumbled, and I realized I was starving. I quickly tucked in, reveling in the saltiness of the eggs combined with the sweet bitterness of my coffee. It was as if I'd never tasted breakfast before and my senses were finally awakened. I sighed in contentment, and Damon looked up in amusement.

"I knew all you needed was some fresh air and good food," Damon said.

And Katherine, I thought.

"Now let's go outside and cause some trouble." Damon smiled wickedly. "Father's in his study, doing his demon studies. Do you know he even has Robert in on it?" Damon shook his head in disgust.

I sighed. While I didn't necessarily believe all the discussion about demons, I did respect Father enough to not make fun of his thoughts. It made me feel vaguely disloyal to hear Damon's dismissal of him.

"I'm sorry, brother." Damon shook his head and scraped his chair back against the slate floor. "I know you don't like it when Father and I fight." He walked over to me, pulling out my chair from under me, almost causing me to fall. I scrambled to my feet and good-naturedly shoved him back.

"That's better!" Damon called with glee. "Now, let's go!" He ran out the back door, letting the door slam shut. Cordelia used to scream at us for that offense as children, and I laughed when I heard her familiar groan from the kitchen. I ran toward the center of the lawn, where Damon had unearthed the oblong ball we'd been tossing two weeks before.

"Here, brother! Catch!" Damon panted, and I turned and leapt into the air, just in time to catch the pigskin in my arms. I pulled it tightly to my chest and began running toward the stable, the wind whipping my face.

"Y boys!" a voice called, stopping me in my

ou tracks. Katherine was standing on the porch of the carriage house, wearing a simple, cream-colored muslin dress and looking so innocent and sweet that I couldn't believe that what happened last night wasn't a dream. "Burning off excess energy? "

I sheepishly turned around and walked toward the porch.

"Playing catch!" I explained, hastily throwing the ball to Damon.

Katherine reached behind her, braiding her curls down the back of her neck. I had a sudden fear that she thought we were tiresome with our childish game and that she'd come out here to scold us for waking her so early. But she simply smiled as she settled on the porch swing.

"Are you ready to play?" Damon called from his position on the lawn. He held the ball far back behind his head as if he were about to throw it toward her.

"Absolutely not." Katherine wrinkled her nose. "Once was enough. Besides, I feel people who need props for their games and sports are lacking in imagination."

"Stefan has imagination." Damon smirked. "Y should hear him read poetry. He's like a

ou troubadour." He dropped the ball and ran toward the porch.

"Damon has imagination. too. Y should see

ou the imaginative way he plays cards," I teased as I reached the steps of the porch.

Katherine nodded at me as I bowed to her but didn't make any other effort to greet me. I stepped back, momentarily stung. Why hadn't she at least given me her hand to kiss? Hadn't last night meant anything to her?

" I am imaginative, especially when I have a muse." Damon winked at Katherine, then stepped in front of me to grab her hand. He brought it to his lips, and my stomach churned. "Thank you," Katherine said, standing up and walking down the porch steps, her simple skirts swishing down the stairs. With her hair pulled back from her eyes, she reminded me of an angel. She gave me a secret smile, and finally I relaxed.

"It's beautiful here," Katherine said, spreading her arms as if blessing the entire estate. "Will you show me around?" she asked, turning and glancing first at Damon, then at me, then back at Damon again. "I've lived here for more than two weeks, and I've barely seen anything besides my bedchambers and the gardens. I want to see something new. Something secret!"

"We have a maze," I said stupidly. Damon elbowed me in the ribs. Not like he had anything better to say.

"I know," Katherine said. "Damon showed me."

My stomach fell at the reminder of how much time the two of them had spent together in the week I was in my sickbed. And if he'd shown her the maze …

But I pushed the thought out of my head as best I could. Damon had always told me about all the women he'd kissed, ever since we were thirteen and he and Amelia Hawke had kissed on the Wickery Bridge. If he had kissed Katherine, I would have heard about it.

"I'd love to see it again," Katherine said, clapping her hands together as if I'd just told her the most interesting news in the world. "Will you both escort me?" she asked hopefully, glancing at us.

"Of course," we said at the same time.

"Oh, wonderful! I must tell Emily." Katherine dashed inside, leaving us standing on opposite ends of the stairs.

"She's quite a woman, isn't she?" Damon asked.

"She is," I said shortly. Before I could say anything else, Katherine came bounding down the stairs, holding a sun umbrella in one hand.

"I'm ready for our adventure!" she cried, handing me her parasol, an expectant look on her face. I hooked it over the crook of my arm, while Katherine linked arms with Damon. I walked a few feet behind, watching the easy way their hips bumped each other, as if she were simply his younger, teasing sister. I relaxed. That was it. Damon was always protective and was simply being a big brother to Katherine. And she needed that.

I whistled under my breath as I followed them. We had a small labyrinth in the front garden, but the maze on the far corner of the property was expansive, built from a boggy marsh by my father, who had been determined to impress our mother. She'd loved to garden and had always bemoaned the fact that the flowers that bloomed in her native France simply couldn't withstand the hard Virginia soil. The area always smelled of roses and clematis and was always the first place couples would retreat to when they wanted to be alone at a Veritas party. The servants had superstitions about the maze: that a child conceived in the maze would be blessed for life, that if you kissed your true love in the center of the maze, you'd be bonded for life, but that if you told a lie while within its walls, you'd be cursed forever. Today it felt almost magical: The arbors and vines provided shade from the sun, making it seem that the three of us were in an enchanted world together–away from death and war.

"It's even more beautiful than I remembered!" Katherine explained. "It's like a storybook. Like the Luxembourg Gardens or the Palace of Versailles!" She plucked a calla lily and inhaled deeply.

I paused and glanced at her. "Y ou've been to Europe, then?" I asked, feeling as provincial as any of the country bumpkins who lived in the shanty town on the other side of Mystic Falls, the ones who pronounced the word creek like crick and who already had four or five children by the time they were our age.

"I've been everywhere," Katherine said simply. She tucked the lily behind her ear. "So, tell me, boys, how did you amuse yourselves when you didn't have a mysterious stranger to impress with a tour of your grounds?"

"We entertain pretty young things with real Southern hospitality." Damon smirked, falling into his overdone accent that always made me laugh.

Katherine rewarded him with a giggle, and I smiled. Now that I saw Damon and Katherine's flirtatious friendship as being as innocent as the relationship of cousins, I could enjoy their banter.

"Damon's right. Our Founders Ball is just a few weeks away," I said, my spirits lifting as I realized that I was free to go to the ball with whoever I pleased. I couldn't wait to twirl Katherine in my arms.

"And you'll be the prettiest girl. Even the girls from Richmond and Charlottesville will be jealous!" Damon pronounced.

"Really? Why, I think I should like that. Is that wicked of me?" Katherine asked, glancing from Damon to me.

"No," I said.

"Y Damon said at the same time. "And I, for

es," one, think more girls should admit their wicked natures. After all, we all know the fairer sex has a dark side. Remember when Clementine cut off Amelia's hair?" Damon turned toward me.

"Y es," I chuckled, happy to play the role of storyteller for Katherine's amusement. "Clementine thought Amelia was being too forward with Matthew Hartnett, and since Clem fancied him, she decided she'd take it in her own hands to make Amelia less attractive."

Katherine put her hand over her mouth in a gesture of exaggerated concern. "I do hope poor Amelia's recovered."

"She's engaged to some soldier. Don't worry about her," Damon said. "In fact, you shouldn't worry about anything. Y ou're far too pretty."

"Well, I am worried about one thing." Katherine widened her eyes. "Who shall escort me to the ball?" She swung her parasol back and forth on her arm as she gazed at the ground, as if thinking through a deep decision. My heart quickened as she looked up at both of us. "I know! Let's have a race. Winner may get to take me!" She threw her parasol on the ground and ran off to the center of the maze.

"Brother?" Damon asked, raising an eyebrow at me.

"Ready?" I smiled, as if this were just a casual children's footrace. I didn't want Damon to know how fast my heart was beating, and how very much I wanted to catch Katherine.

"Go!" Damon yelled. Immediately I began running. My hands and legs flailed, and I propelled myself into the maze. When we were in school, I was the fastest boy in the class, lightning quick when the school bell rang.

Then I heard peals of laughter. I glanced back. Damon was doubled up over himself, slapping his knee. I gulped air, trying not to seem winded. "Scared to compete?" I said, running back and slugging Damon on the shoulder. I'd meant it to be a playful punch, but it landed with a heavy thud.

"Oh, now we're on, brother!" Damon said, his voice light and full of laughter. He grabbed my shoulders and wrestled me easily to the ground. I struggled to my feet and tackled him, throwing him onto his back and pinning down his wrists.

"Think you can still lick your little brother?" I teased, enjoying my momentary victory.

"No one came for me!" Katherine pouted, wandering out of the maze. Her frown quickly turned into a smile as she saw us on the ground, breathing heavily. "Good thing I'm here to save you both." She knelt and pressed her lips first to Damon's cheek, then to mine. I released Damon's wrists and stood up, wiping the dirt off my breeches.

"See?" she asked, as she offered an arm to Damon. "All you need is a kiss to make everything better–although you boys shouldn't be such brutes with each other."

"We were fighting for you," Damon said lazily, not bothering to stand up. Just then, the sound of horses' hooves interrupted us. Alfred dismounted his horse and bowed to the three of us. It must have been a sight: Damon lying on the ground, resting his head on his hand as if he were simply reclining, me frantically brushing grass stains off my trousers, and Katherine standing between us, looking amused.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," Alfred said. "But Master Giuseppe needs to speak to Master Damon. It's urgent."

"Of course it is. Everything is always urgent for Father. What do you bet he has another ridiculous theory he needs to discuss?" Damon said.

Katherine lifted her parasol from the ground. "I should get going, too. I'm all disheveled, and I'm due to visit with Pearl at the apothecary."

"Come," Alfred said, gesturing for Damon to jump onto the back of his horse. As Alfred and Damon rode away, Katherine and I slowly walked back to the carriage house. I wanted to bring up the Founders Ball again but found myself afraid to do so.

"Y don't need to keep pace with me.

ou Perhaps you should keep your brother company," Katherine suggested. "It seems that your father is a man who's best taken on by two," she observed. Her hand brushed my own and she grabbed my wrist. Then she stepped on her tiptoes and allowed her lips to graze my cheek. "Come see me tonight, sweet Stefan. My chambers will be open." And with that, she broke off into a spirited run.

She was like a colt, galloping free, and I felt my heart gallop along with her. There was no question: She felt the same way I did. And knowing that made me feel more alive than I ever had in my life.