Origins (Chapter 8)

I'm not sure how long we stayed in the room together. The minutes ticked away on the grandfather clock in the corner, but all I was aware of was the rhythmic sound of Katherine's breath, the way the light caught her angular jaw, the quick flick of the page as we looked through the book. I was dimly conscious of the fact that I needed to leave, soon, but whenever I thought of the music and the dancing and the plates of fried chicken and Rosalyn, I found myself literally unable to move.

"You're not reading!" Katherine teased at one point, glancing up from The Mysteries of Mystic Falls.

"No, I'm not."

"Why? Are you distracted?" Katherine rose, her slender shoulders stretching as she reached up to place the book back on the shelf. She put it in the wrong spot, next to Father's world geography books.

"Here," I murmured, reaching behind her to take the book and place it on the high shelf where it belonged. The smell of lemon and ginger surrounded me, making me feel wobbly and dizzy. She turned toward me. Our lips were mere inches apart, and suddenly the scent of her became nearly unbearable. Even though my head knew it was wrong, my heart screamed that I'd never be complete if I didn't kiss Katherine. I closed my eyes and leaned in until my lips grazed hers.

For a moment, it felt as though my entire life had clicked into place. I saw Katherine running barefoot in the fields behind the guest house, me chasing after her, our young son slung over my shoulder.

But then, entirely unbidden, an image of Penny, her throat torn out, floated through my mind. I pulled back instantly, as if struck by lightning.

"I'm sorry!" I said, leaning back and tripping against a small end table, stacked high with Father's volumes. They fell to the floor, the sound muffled by the Oriental rugs. My mouth tasted like iron. What had I just done? What if my father had come in, eager to open the humidor with Mr. Cartwright? My brain whirled in horror.

"I have to … I have to go. I have to go find my fianc�e." Without a backward glance at Katherine and the stunned expression that was sure to be on her face, I fled the study and ran through the empty conservatory and toward the garden.

Twilight was just beginning to fall. Coaches were setting off with mothers and young children as well as cautious revelers who were afraid of the animal attacks. Now was when the liquor would flow, the band would play more loudly, and girls would outdo themselves waltzing, intent to capture the eyes of a Confederate soldier from the nearby camp. I felt my breath returning to normal. No one knew where I'd been, much less what I had done.

I strode purposefully into the center of the party, as if I'd simply been refilling my glass at the bar. I saw Damon sitting with other soldiers, playing a round of poker on the corner of the porch. Five girls were squeezed onto the porch swing, giggling and talking loudly. Father and Mr. Cartwright were walking toward the labyrinth, each holding a whiskey and gesturing in an animated fashion, no doubt talking about the benefits of the Cartwright-Salvatore merger.

"Stefan!" I felt a hand clap my back. "We were wondering where the guests of honor were. No respect for their elders," Robert said jovially.

"Rosalyn's still not here?" I asked.

"Y know how girls are. They have to look just

ou right, especially if they're celebrating their impending marriage," Robert said.

His words rang true, yet an unexplainable shiver of fear rushed down my spine.

Was it just me, or had the sun set remarkably quickly? The revelers on the lawn had changed to shadowy figures in the five minutes since I'd been outside, and I couldn't make out Damon within the group in the corner.

Leaving Robert behind, I elbowed my way past the party guests. It was odd for a girl to not show up at her own party. What if, somehow, she'd come into the house and she'd seen …

But that was impossible. The door had been closed, the shades drawn. I walked briskly toward the servants' quarters near the pond, where the servants were having their own party, to see if Rosalyn's coachman had arrived.

The moon reflected off the water, casting an eerie, greenish glow on the rocks and willow trees surrounding the pond. The grass was wet with dew, and still trampled from the time when Damon, Katherine, and I had played football there. The knee-high mist made me wish I were wearing my boots instead of my dress shoes.

I squinted. At the base of the willow tree, where Damon and I had spent hours climbing as children, was a shadowy lump on the ground, like a large, gnarled tree root. Only I didn't remember a tree root in that spot. I squinted again. For a moment, I wondered if it could be a pair of intertwined lovers, trying to escape prying eyes. I smiled despite myself. At least someone had found love at this party.

But then the clouds shifted, and a shaft of moonlight illuminated the tree–and the form beneath it. I realized with a sickening jolt that the shape wasn't two lovers in mid-embrace. It was Rosalyn, my betrothed, her throat torn out, her eyes half open, staring up at the tree branches as if they held the secret to a universe she no longer inhabited.