Origins (Chapter 7)

The next week passed in a blur. I ran from fittings at Mrs. Fells's dress shop to visits with Rosalyn in the Cartwrights' stuffy parlor to the tavern with Damon. I tried to forget Katherine, leaving my shutters closed so I wouldn't be tempted to look across the lawn at the carriage house, and forcing myself to smile and wave at Damon and Katherine when they explored the gardens.

Once I went up to the attic to look at the portrait of Mother. I wondered what advice she'd have for me. Love is patient, I remembered her saying in her lilting French accent during Bible study. The notion comforted me. Maybe love could come to me and Rosalyn.

After that, I tried to love Rosalyn, or at least garner some kind of affection for her. I knew, behind her quietness and her dishwater blond hair, she was simply a sweet girl who'd make a doting wife and mother. Our most recent visits hadn't been awful. In fact, Rosalyn had been in remarkably good spirits. She'd gotten a new dog, a sleek black beast named Sadie, which she'd taken to carrying everywhere lest the new puppy suffer the same fate as Penny had. At one point, when Rosalyn looked up at me with adoring eyes, asking if I'd prefer lilacs or gardenias at the wedding, I almost felt fond of her. Maybe that would be enough.

Father had wasted no time in planning another party to celebrate. This time, it was a barbecue at the estate, and Father had invited everyone within a twenty-mile radius. I recognized only a handful of the young men, pretty girls, and Confederate soldiers who milled around the labyrinth, acting as if they owned the estate. When I was younger, I used to love the parties at Veritas–they were always a chance to run down to the ice pond with our friends, to play hide-and-seek in the swamp, to ride horses to the Wickery Bridge, then dare each other to dive into the icy depths of Willow Creek. Now I just wished it were over, so I could be alone in my room.

"Stefan, care to share a whiskey with me?" Robert called out to me from the makeshift bar set up on the portico. To judge from his lopsided grin, he was already drunk.

He passed me a sweating tumbler and tipped his own to mine. "Pretty soon, there will be young Salvatores all over the place. Can you picture it?" He swept his hands expansively over the grounds as if to show me just how much room my imaginary family would have in which to grow.

I swirled my whiskey miserably, unable to picture it for myself.

"Well, you've made your daddy one lucky man. And Rosalyn one lucky girl," Robert said. He lifted his glass to me one last time, then went to chat with the Lockwoods' overseer.

I sighed and sat down on the porch swing, observing the merriment occurring all around me. I knew I should feel happy. I knew Father only wanted what was best for me. I knew that there was nothing wrong with Rosalyn.

So why did this engagement feel like a death sentence?

On the lawn, people were eating and laughing and dancing, and a makeshift band made up of my childhood friends Ethan Giffin, Brian Walsh, and Matthew Hartnett was playing a version of "The Bonnie Blue Flag." The sky was cloudless and the weather balmy, with just a slight nip in the air to remind us that it was, indeed, fall. In the distance, schoolchildren were swinging and shrieking on the gate. To be around so much merriment–all meant for me–and not feel happy made my heart thud heavily in my chest.

Standing up, I walked inside toward Father's study. I shut the door to the study and breathed a sigh of relief. Only the faintest stream of sunlight peeked through the heavy damask curtains. The room was cool and smelled of well-oiled leather and musty books. I took out a slim volume of Shakespeare's sonnets and turned to my favorite poem. Shakespeare calmed me, the words soothing my brain and reminding me that there soothing my brain and reminding me that there was love and beauty in the world. Perhaps experiencing it through art would be enough to sustain me.

I settled into Father's leather club chair in the corner and absentmindedly skimmed the onionskin pages. I'm not sure how long I sat there, letting the language wash over me, but the more I read, the calmer I felt.

"What are you reading?"

The voice startled me, and the book slid off my lap with a clatter.

Katherine stood at the study entrance, wearing a simple, white silk dress that hugged every curve of her body. All the other women at the party were wearing layers of crinoline and muslin, their skin guarded under thick fabric. But Katherine didn't seem the least bit embarrassed by her exposed white shoulders. Out of propriety, I glanced away.

"Why aren't you at the party?" I asked, bending to pick up my book.

Katherine stepped toward me. "Why aren't you at the party? Aren't you the guest of honor?" She perched on the arm of my chair.

"Have you read Shakespeare?" I asked, gesturing to the open book on my lap. It was a lame attempt to change the conversation; I had yet to meet a girl versed in his works. Just yesterday, Rosalyn had admitted she hadn't even read a book in the past three years, ever since she had graduated from the Girls Academy. Even at that, the last volume she'd perused was merely a primer on how to be a dutiful Confederate wife.

"Shakespeare," she repeated, her accent expanding the word to three syllables. It was an odd accent, not one that I'd heard from other people from Atlanta. She swung her legs back and forth, and I could see that she wasn't wearing stockings. I tore my eyes away.

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" she quoted.

I looked up, astonished. "Thou art more lovely and more temperate," I said, continuing the quote. My heart galloped in my chest, and my brain felt as slow as molasses, creating an unusual sensation that made me feel I was dreaming.

Katherine yanked the book off my lap, closing it with a resounding clap. "No," she said firmly.

"But that's how the next line goes," I said, annoyed that she was changing the rules of a game I thought I understood.

"That's how the next line goes for Mr. Shakespeare. But I was simply asking you a question. Shall I compare you to a summer's day? Are you worthy of that comparison, Mr. Salvatore? Or do you need a book to decide?" Katherine asked, grinning as she held the volume just out of my reach.

I cleared my throat, my mind racing. Damon would have said something witty in response, without even thinking about it. But when I was with Katherine, I was like a schoolboy who tries to impress a girl with a frog caught from the pond.

"Well, you could compare my brother to a summer's day. Y ou've been spending a lot of time with him." My face reddened, and instantly I wished I could take it back. I sounded so jealous and petty.

"Maybe a summer's day with a few thunderstorms in the distance," Katherine said, arching her eyebrow. "But you, Scholarly Stefan, you are different from Dark Damon. Or …" –Katherine looked away, a flicker of a grin crossing her face–"Dashing Damon."

"I can be dashing, too," I said petulantly, before I even realized what I was saying. I shook my head, frustrated. It was as though Katherine somehow compelled me to speak without thinking. She was so lively and vivacious–talking to her, I felt as though I was in a dream, where nothing I said would have any consequence but everything I said was important.

"Well, then, I must see that, Stefan," Katherine said. She placed her icy hand on my forearm. "I've gotten to know Damon, but I barely know you. It's quite a shame, don't you think?"

In the distance, the band struck up "I'm a Good Old Rebel." I knew I needed to get back outside, to smoke a cigar with Mr. Cartwright, to twirl Rosalyn in a first waltz, to toast my place as a man of Mystic Falls. But instead I remained on the leather club seat, wishing I could stay in the library, breathing in Katherine's scent, forever.

"May I make an observation?" Katherine asked, leaning toward me. An errant dark curl flopped down on her white forehead. I had to use all my strength to resist pushing it off her face. "I don't think you like what's happening right now. The barbecue, the engagement …"

My heart pounded. I searched Katherine's brown eyes. For the past week, I'd been trying desperately to hide my feelings. But had she seen me pausing outside the carriage house? Had she seen me run Mezzanotte to the forest when she and Damon explored the garden, desperate to get away from their laughter? Had she somehow managed to read my thoughts?

Katherine smiled ruefully. "Poor, sweet, steadfast Stefan. Haven't you learned yet that rules are made to be broken? Y can't make

ou anyone happy–your father, Rosalyn, the Cartwrights–if you're not happy yourself."

I cleared my throat, aching with the realization that this woman who I'd known for a matter of weeks understood me better than my own father … and my future wife … ever would.

Katherine slid off the chair and glanced at the volumes on Father's shelves. She took down a thick, leather-bound book, The Mysteries of Mystic Falls. It was a volume I'd never seen before. A smile lit her rose-colored lips, and she beckoned me to join her on my father's couch. I knew I shouldn't, but as if in a trance, I stood and crossed the room. I sank into the cool, cracked leather cushion next to her and just let go.

After all, who knew? Perhaps a few moments in her presence would be the balm I needed to break my melancholia.