Origins (Chapter 2)

The next afternoon, I found myself sitting on a stiff, low-backed velvet chair in the Cartwrights' sitting room. Every time I shifted, trying to find a spot of comfort on the hard seat, I felt the gaze of Mrs. Cartwright, Rosalyn, and her maid fall upon me. It was as though I was the subject in a portrait at a museum or a character in a drawing room drama. The entire front room reminded me of a set for a play–it was hardly the type of place in which to relax. Or talk, for that matter. During the first fifteen minutes of my arrival, we'd haltingly discussed the weather, the new store in town, and the war.

After that, long pauses reigned, the only sound the hollow clacking of the maid's knitting needles. I glanced at Rosalyn again, trying to find something about her person to compliment. She had a pert face with a dimple in her chin, and her earlobes were small and symmetrical. From the half centimeter of ankle I could see below the hem of her dress, it seemed she had delicate bone structure.

Just then a sharp pain shot up my leg. I let out a cry, then looked down at the floor, where a tiny, copper-colored dog about the size of a rat had embedded its pointed teeth in the skin of my ankle. "Oh, that's Penny. Penny's just saying hi, isn't she?" Rosalyn cooed, scooping up the tiny animal into her arms. The dog stared at me, continuing to bare its teeth. I inched farther back in my seat.

"She's, uh, very nice," I said, even though I didn't understand the point of a dog that small. Dogs were supposed to be companions that could keep you company on a hunt, not ornaments to match the furniture.

"Isn't she, though?" Rosalyn looked up in rapture. "She's my very best friend, and I must say, I'm terrified of her going outside now, with all the reports of animal murders!"

"I'm telling you, Stefan, we're so frightened!" Mrs. Cartwright jumped in, running her hands over the bodice of her navy dress. "I don't understand this world. It's simply not meant for us women to even go outside."

"I hope whatever it is doesn't attack us. Sometimes I'm scared to step foot outdoors, even when it's light," Rosalyn fretted, clutching Penny tightly to her chest. The dog yelped and jumped off her lap. "I'd die if anything happened to Penny."

"I'm sure she'll be fine. After all, the attacks have been happening on farms, not in town," I said, halfheartedly trying to comfort her.

"Stefan?" Mrs. Cartwright asked in her shrill voice, the same one she affected when she used to chide Damon and me for whispering during church. Her face was pinched, and her expression looked like she had just sucked on a lemon. "Don't you think Rosalyn looks especially beautiful today?"

"Oh, yes," I lied. Rosalyn was wearing a drab brown dress that matched her brownish blond hair. Loose ringlets fell about her skinny shoulders. Her outfit was a direct contrast to the parlor, which was decorated with oak furniture, brocade chairs, and dark-colored Oriental rugs that overlapped on the gleaming wood floor. In the far corner, over the marble mantel, a portrait of Mr. Cartwright stared down at me, a stern expression on his angular face. I glanced at him curiously. In contrast to his wife, who was overweight and red-faced, Mr. Cartwright was ghostly pale and skinny–and slightly dangerous-looking, like the vultures we'd seen circling around the battlefield last summer. Considering who her parents were, Rosalyn had actually turned out remarkably well.

Rosalyn blushed. I shifted on the chair's edge, feeling the jewelry box in my rear pocket. I'd glanced at the ring last night, when sleep wouldn't come. I recognized it instantly. It was an emerald circled by diamonds, made by the finest craftsmen in Venice and worn by my mother until the day she died.

"So, Stefan? What do you think of pink?" Rosalyn asked, breaking me out of my reverie.

"I'm sorry, what?" I asked, distracted. Mrs. Cartwright shot me an irritated look.

"Pink? For the dinner next week? It's so kind of your father to plan it," Rosalyn said, her face bright red as she stared at the floor.

"I think pink would look delightful on you. Y ou'll be beautiful no matter what you wear," I said woodenly, as though I were an actor reading lines from a script. Mrs. Cartwright smiled approvingly. The dog ran to her and jumped onto a pillow next to her. She began stroking its coat.

Suddenly the room felt hot and humid. The cloying, competing scents of Mrs. Cartwright's and Rosalyn's perfumes made my head spin. I sneaked a glance at the antique grandfather clock in the corner. I'd been here for only fifty-five minutes, yet it might as well have been fifty-five years.

I stood up, my legs wobbling beneath me. "It has been lovely visiting with you, Mrs. and Miss Cartwright, but I'd be loath to take up the rest of your afternoon."

"Thank you." Mrs. Cartwright nodded, not rising from her settee. "Maisy will show you out," she said, lifting her chin toward their maid, who was now dozing over her knitting.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I left the house. The air was cool against my clammy skin, and I was happy that I hadn't had our coachman wait for me; I would be able to clear my head by walking the two miles home. The sun was beginning to sink into the horizon, and the smell of honeysuckle and jasmine hung heavily in the air.

I glanced up at Veritas as I strode up the hill. Blooming lilies surrounded the large urns flanking the path to the front door. The white columns of the porch glowed orange from the setting sun, the pond's mirror-like surface gleamed in the distance, and I could hear the faraway sound of the children playing near the servants' quarters. This was my home, and I loved it.

But I couldn't imagine sharing it with Rosalyn. I shoved my hands in my pockets and angrily kicked a stone in the curve of the road.

I paused when I reached the entrance to the drive, where an unfamiliar coach was standing. I stared with curiosity–we rarely had visitors–as a white-haired coachman jumped out of the driver's seat and opened the cab. A beautiful, pale woman with cascading dark curls stepped out. She wore a billowing white dress, cinched at her narrow waist with a peach-colored ribbon. A matching peach hat was perched atop her head, obscuring her eyes.

As if she knew I was staring, she turned. I gasped despite myself. She was more than beautiful; she was sublime. Even from a distance of twenty paces, I could see her dark eyes flickering, her pink lips curving into a small smile. Her thin fingers touched the blue cameo necklace at her throat, and I found myself mirroring the gesture, imagining what her small hand would feel like on my own skin.

Then she turned again, and a woman, who must have been her maid, stepped out of the cab and began fussing with her skirts.

"Hello!" she called.

"Hello …," I croaked. As I breathed, I smelled a heady combination of ginger and lemon.

"I'm Katherine Pierce. And you are?" she asked, her voice playful. It was as if she knew I was tongue-tied by her beauty. I wasn't sure whether I should be mortified or thankful that she was taking the lead.

"Katherine," I repeated slowly, remembering. Father had told me the story of a friend of a friend down in Atlanta. His neighbors had perished when their house caught fire during General Sherman's siege, and the only survivor had been a sixteen- year-old girl with no relations. Immediately, Father had offered to board the girl in our carriage house. It had all sounded very mysterious and romantic, and when Father told me, I saw in his eyes how much he enjoyed the idea of serving as rescuer to this young orphan.

"Y es," she said, her eyes dancing. "And you are …"

"Stefan!" I said quickly. "Stefan Salvatore. Giuseppe's son. I am so sorry for your family's tragedy." "Thank you," she said. In an instant, her eyes became dark and somber. "And I thank you and your father for hosting me and my maid, Emily. I don't know what we would have done without you."

"Yes, of course." I felt suddenly protective. "You'll be in the carriage house. Would you like me to show you?"

"We shall find it ourselves. Thank you, Stefan Salvatore," Katherine said, following the coachman, who carried a large trunk toward the small guest house, which was set back a bit from the main estate. Then she turned around and stared at me. "Or should I call you Savior Stefan?" she asked with a wink before turning on her heel.

I watched her walk into the sunset, her maid trailing her, and instantly I knew my life would never be the same.