Origins (Chapter 6)

The weather didn't break by my engagement dinner a few days later, and even at five o'clock in the afternoon the air was hot and humid. In the kitchen, I'd overheard the servants gossiping that the strange, still weather was a result of the animal-killing demons. But discussion of the demons did not stop people from all over the county coming to the Grange Hall to celebrate the Confederacy. The coaches backed up beyond the stone drive and showed no sign of slowing their onslaught toward the imposing stone structure.

"Stefan Salvatore!" I heard as I stepped out of the coach behind my father.

As my feet hit dirt, I saw Ellen Emerson and her daughter, Daisy, walking arm in arm, trailed by two maids. Hundreds of lanterns lit the stone steps leading to the white wooden doors, and carriages lined the curved walkway. I could hear strains of a waltz coming from inside the hall.

"Mrs. Emerson. Daisy." I bowed deeply. Daisy had hated me ever since we were children, when Damon had dared me to push her into Willow Creek.

"Why, if it isn't the gorgeous Emerson ladies," Father said, also bowing. "Thank you to both of you for coming to this small supper. It's so good to see everyone in town. We need to band together, now more than ever," Father said, catching Ellen Emerson's eye.

"Stefan," Daisy repeated, nodding as she took my hand.

"Daisy. Y look more beautiful every day. Can

ou you please forgive a gentleman for his wicked youth?"

She glared at me. I sighed. There was no mystery or intrigue in Mystic Falls. Everyone knew everyone else. If Rosalyn and I were to get married, our children would be dancing with Daisy's children. They would have the same conversations, the same jokes, the same fights. And the cycle would continue for eternity.

"Ellen, would you do me the honor of allowing me to show you inside?" Father asked, anxious to make sure the hall was decorated according to his exacting specifications. Daisy's mother nodded, and Daisy and I were left under the watchful gaze of the Emersons' maid.

"I've heard Damon's back. How is he?" Daisy asked, finally deigning to talk to me.

"Miss Emerson, we best be going inside to find your mama," Daisy's maid interrupted, tugging Daisy's arm through the wide double doors of the Grange Hall.

"I look forward to seeing Damon. Do give him that message!" Daisy called over her shoulder.

I sighed and stepped into the hall. Located between town and the estate, the Grange had once been a meeting spot for the county's landed gentry but had now become a makeshift armory. The walls of the hall were covered with ivy and wisteria and, farther up, Confederate flags. A band on the raised stage in the corner played a jaunty rendition of "The Bonnie Blue Flag," and at least fifty couples circled the floor with glasses of punch in their hands. Father had obviously spared no expense, and it was clear that this was more than a simple welcome dinner for the troops.

Heart-heavy, I headed over to the punch.

I hadn't walked more than five steps when I felt a hand clap my back. I prepared myself to give a tight smile and accept the awkward congratulations that were already trickling in. What was the point of having a dinner to announce an engagement that everyone seemed to know about? I thought sourly.

I turned to find myself face-to-face with Mr. Cartwright. I instantly composed my expression into something I hoped resembled excitement.

"Stefan, boy! If it isn't the man of the hour!" Mr. Cartwright said, offering me a glass of whiskey.

"Sir. Thank you for allowing me the pleasure of your daughter's company," I said automatically, taking the smallest sip I could muster. I'd woken up with a terrible whiskey headache the morning after Damon and I spent time at the tavern. I'd stayed in bed, a cool compress on my forehead, while Damon had barely seemed affected. I'd heard him chasing Katherine through the labyrinth in the backyard. Every laugh I'd heard was like a tiny dagger in my brain.

"The pleasure is all yours. I know it's a good merger. Practical and low risk with plenty of opportunity for growth."

"Thank you, sir," I said. "And I am so sorry about Rosalyn's dog."

Mr. Cartwright shook his head. "Don't tell my wife or Rosalyn, but I'd always hated the damn thing. Not saying it should have gone and gotten itself killed, but I think everyone is getting themselves all worked up over nothing. All this discussion of demons you hear all over the damn place. People whispering that the town is cursed. It's that kind of talk that makes people so afraid of risk. Makes them nervous about putting their money in the bank," Mr. Cartwright boomed, causing several people to stare. I smiled nervously.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Father acting as host and shuttling people toward the long table at the center of the room. I noticed each place was set with Mother's delicate fleur-de-lis china.

"Stefan," my father said, clapping his hand on my shoulder, "are you ready? Y have everything

ou you need?"

"Yes." I touched the ring in my breast pocket and followed him to the head of the table. Rosalyn stood next to her mother and smiled tightly at her parents. Rosalyn's eyes, still red from crying over poor Penny, clashed horribly with the oversize, frilly pink dress she was wearing.

As our neighbors took their seats around us, I realized that there were still two empty seats to my left.

"Where's your brother?" Father asked, lowering his voice.

I glanced toward the door. The band was still playing, and there was anticipation in the air. Finally, the doors opened with a clatter, and Damon and Katherine walked in. Together.

It wasn't fair, I thought savagely. Damon could act like a boy, could continue to drink and flirt as if nothing had consequence. I'd always done the right thing, the responsible thing, and now it felt as though I was being punished for it by being forced to become a man.

Even I was surprised by the surge of anger I felt. Instantly guilty, I tried to squelch the emotion by downing the full glass of wine to my left. After all, would Katherine have been expected to come to the dinner by herself? And wasn't Damon just being gallant, the good elder brother?

Besides, they had no future. Marriages, at least in our society, were approved only if they merged two families. And, as an orphan, what did Katherine have to offer besides beauty? Father would never let me marry her, but that also meant he wouldn't let Damon marry her either. And even Damon wouldn't go so far as to marry someone Father didn't approve of. Right?

Still, I couldn't tear my eyes away from Damon's arm around Katherine's tiny waist. She wore a green muslin dress whose fabric spread across her hoop skirts, and there was a hushed murmur as she and Damon made their way to the two empty seats at the center of the table. Her blue necklace gleamed at her throat, and she winked at me before taking the empty seat next to my own. Her hip brushed against mine, and I shifted uncomfortably.

"Damon." Father nodded tersely as Damon sat down to his left.

"So do you think the army will be all the way down to Georgia by winter?" I asked Jonah Palmer loudly, simply because I didn't trust myself to speak to Katherine. If I heard her musical voice, I might lose my nerve to propose to Rosalyn.

"I'm not worried about Georgia. What I am worried about is getting the militia together to solve the problems here in Mystic Falls. These attacks will not be stood for," Jonah, the town veterinarian who had also been training the Mystic Falls militia, said loudly, pounding his fist on the table so hard, the china rattled.

Just then, an army of servants entered the hall, holding plates of wild pheasant. I took my silver fork and pushed the gamey meat around my plate; I had no appetite. Around me, I could hear the usual discussions: about the war, about what we could do for our boys in gray, about upcoming dinners and barbecues and church socials. Katherine was nodding intently at Honoria Fells across the table. Suddenly I felt jealous of the grizzled, frizzy-haired Honoria. She was able to have the one-on-one conversation with Katherine that I so desperately wanted.

"Ready, son?" Father elbowed me in the ribs, and I noticed that people were already finished with their meals. More wine was being poured, and the band, who'd paused during the main course, was playing in the corner. This was the moment everyone had been waiting for: They knew an announcement was about to be made, and they knew that following that announcement there would be celebrating and dancing. It was always the way dinners happened in Mystic Falls. But I'd never before been at the center of an announcement. As if on cue, Honoria leaned toward me, and Damon smiled encouragingly.

Feeling sick to my stomach, I took a deep breath and clinked my knife against my crystal glass. Immediately, there was a hush throughout the hall, and even the servants stopped midstep to stare at me. I stood up, took a long swig of red wine for courage, and cleared my throat.

"I … um," I began in a low, strained voice I didn't recognize as my own. "I have an announcement." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Father clutching his champagne flute, ready to jump in with a toast. I glanced at Katherine. She was looking at me, her dark eyes piercing my own. I tore my gaze away and gripped my glass so tightly, I was sure it would break. "Rosalyn, I'd like to ask your hand in marriage. Will you do me the honor?" I said in a rush, fumbling in my suit pocket for the ring.

I pulled out the box and knelt down in front of Rosalyn, staring up at her watery brown eyes. "For you," I said without inflection, flipping open the lid and holding it out toward her.

Rosalyn shrieked, and the room burst into a smattering of applause. I felt a hand clap my back, and I saw Damon grinning down on me. Katherine clapped politely, an unreadable expression on her face.

"Here." I took Rosalyn's tiny white hand and pushed the ring on her finger. It was too large, and the emerald rolled lopsidedly toward her pinkie. She looked like a child playing dress-up with her mother's jewelry. But Rosalyn didn't seem to care that the ring didn't fit. Instead, she held out her hand, watching as the diamonds captured the light of the table's candles. Immediately, a crush of women surrounded us, cooing over the ring.

"This does call for a celebration!" my father called out. "Cigars for everyone. Come here, Stefan, son! Y ou've made me one proud father."

I nodded and shakily stepped over to him. It was ironic that while I'd spent my entire life trying to get my father's approval, what made him happiest was an act that made me feel dead inside.

"Katherine, will you dance with me?" I heard Damon's voice above the din of scraping chairs and clinking glassware. I stopped in my tracks, waiting for the answer.

Katherine glanced up, casting a furtive look in my direction. Her eyes held my own for a long moment. A wild urge to rip the ring off Rosalyn's finger and place it on Katherine's pale one nearly overtook me. But then Father nudged me from behind, and before I could react, Damon grabbed Katherine by the hand and led her out to the dance floor.