The Craving (Chapter 10)

November 6, 1864

Damon is back, though it seems he was never actually gone. He has been watching me, baiting me, controlling me. He is the puppet master and I am his hapless marionette, forced to do his bidding.

Until I saw Damon, I had not realized just how fond I had become of the Sutherlands, of how they eased my loneliness and gave me hope that I might not have to live in exile. Though I knew I had to leave them, I had dared to hope that by proving I could stay in control around them, my journey through this world might ultimately be less solitary.

But Damon knows me all too well. He might have compelled the Sutherlands to accept me, but he didn't compel me to stay in their presence. I could have slipped out this morning, could have run off in the park, could have disappeared into the crowd at the ball. And yet I stayed, because, as Damon no doubt predicted, I liked being part of a family again, even if just for a few fleeting days.

Damon's plan terrifies me – precisely because I don't understand it. Why New York? Why the Sutherlands? Why involve me? If Damon was able to orchestrate everything, to so seamlessly weave his way into the Sutherlands' lives and pave the way for my arrival, why stage such a spectacle? Why bother with a marriage? Why not just take Winfield to the bank and compel him and the teller to empty his vast accounts? Does he intend to live as a human? Does he need the marriage for legitimacy in New York society? Is he simply intent upon torturing me?

Or is there something I'm missing? Some secret aim I can't possibly begin to imagine…

All I have are questions. And I fear that the answers won't come until the first dead body shows up.

Later that Monday afternoon, I stood on the roof deck of one of the most amazing Federal-style houses ever built. Slim columns supported a soaring porch over a formal entrance, to which a grand, curved driveway rolled up as royally as a red carpet. From casement to cornice every detail was thoughtfully considered and never overdone. The dining room, large and oval, was (as near as I could tell) exactly the same as the one in the White House. The White House. In our new capital. That's the sort of place the Commandant's House was, as befitted the man who looked after the Brooklyn Naval Yards.

What it lacked in size and modern touches (such as the Sutherlands' residence), it more than made up for in perfectly manicured lawns, a fine orchard, and a spectacular view of Manhattan. The property was perched almost on a cliff surveying the East River and the city that was under the Navy's protection. Commodore Matthew Perry himself had lived there earlier. I sighed at its magnificence.

"No," Bridget said, shaking her head decisively and heading back downstairs, picking up the train of her skirts in a very businesslike way.

Her little entourage followed, laughing good-naturedly.

"It's too white," joked Bram.

"It's too small," added Hilda.

"But it's incredible! The views! The size! The…" I said. "What's wrong with this one?"

"Placement. It's in Brooklyn," Bridget said, barely acknowledging her fiance. "No one goes to Brooklyn to be married."

Winfield and his wife looked at each other with old love, clearly remembering their own wedding. Apparently it had been quite modest – he had not made his fortune yet. Neither one of them had minded. And yet they were willing to indulge their youngest daughter in her most expensive flights of fancy.

Lydia smiled and murmured something to Damon, who wasn't really paying attention. She didn't mind where she was married. While it was to be a double feature with us two "happy" couples tying the knot at the same time, she had graciously allowed her sister to decide all the details.

The Sutherlands were at least nominally Episcopal, but apparently neither Damon's nor my religion, or lack thereof, was a bother, nor was a proper church necessary to the proceedings; a family chapel – a very rich family's chapel – would be enough. Bridget was very modern that way.

"So why did we bother seeing those mansions on Prospect Park?" Margaret muttered. "If Brooklyn is out, I mean."

"I rather liked the one with all the Romanesque arches," I said, eager to get this portion of the sham weddings out of the way.

"Fear not, brother," Damon said, chucking me on the shoulder. "Only four more to go. Back in Manhattan."

We clattered down the steep, wooden, and rather old-fashioned stairs to the ground floor, thanking the butler for letting us in. Then it was a walk back down to the Fulton Ferry landing, where a boat would take us across to a veritable caravan of carriages for the long uptown commute.

"This would be a nice place for an ice cream parlor," Lydia remarked, walking around the dock pensively.

"You want an ice cream?" Damon asked, as if to a four-year-old.

If being with Bridget was bad enough, with me constantly cringing at the things that came out of her mouth, the nervous tension of waiting for Damon to say or do something horrible was even worse. I was on pins and needles the entire day. Because Damon would say something horrible, at some point, to Lydia, as soon as he tired of playing the game of attentive suitor. His attention span for games – other than ones he was betting on – was incredibly limited.

"Yes," Lydia said. "And there's no ice cream here. And there should be."

"Won't matter," Bridget said, trying to add something useful to the conversation. "Soon there's going to be a giant bridge and this will all be shaded off and there won't be anything except for loud carriages and the stink of horses."

Bram, the original source of this information, shook his head. "No, Bridgey, the angle is fine. Look where the sun is…"

I leaned on a dock railing, surveying our little party. The girls in this setting looked like a scene from a painting, the four ladies' cheeks rosy with sunlight and the exertion of the day, the long ribbons from their straw hats blowing in the wind, their fluffy walking skirts swept up against their legs by the sea breeze. They were all beautiful, and for just a moment I could forget my present situation.

Margaret bought a paper from a newsboy to read on the trip over. It was a fine day for a boat ride and strangely the East River didn't repel me the way fresh running water usually did. Bridget went to sit down inside the ferry, not wanting any more sun on her skin, which was ironic and hilarious considering my own situation. I was relaxing for the first time that day, my face up to the sun, letting my Mediterranean skin take on a bronzed, healthy glow.

And then Margaret plopped down in the seat next to me.

"You seem to be at least a bit more reasonable than the other fiance," Margaret snapped. "Tell me. What do you want with my family. Money? The business? What?"

I groaned inwardly. "You have to believe me," I said, fixing her blue eyes with my own hazel ones. Without compelling her, I willed my voice to sound as genuine as I could. I took her arms in my hands, which was bold, but I needed her to understand. "I am not after Bridget's wealth. All I want is your family's safety and happiness. I swear to you by whatever you want."

"That's just the problem. I don't know what your word is worth. I don't know you. Nobody knows you," Margaret said. Sighing, she took off her hat. "It's just… so… odd. I can see why Bridget likes you, you're certainly handsome and well-mannered…."

I cast my eyes down, embarrassed.

"But really – no papers, no history, just an escapee of the South? This is Bridget we're talking about. She wanted Papa to take us all on a tour of Europe so she could capture the heart of a king, or prince, or at least a duke. Nothing less than royalty for her. And no offense, you're about as far from royalty as one can get."

"Well, and Lydia got her count, I suppose."

"Yes," Margaret said thoughtfully. She eyed me, pushing a black tendril of hair back behind her ear. "And what about Damon DeSangue…"

I shrugged, trying to look innocent.

"What do you think of him? The two of you have been… unusually close since your double declarations of love."

I stared into the distance south, where the mighty Hudson and East rivers joined and became the sea. I shaded the city from my eyes, blocking it out, and the sun was bright white and rose over ancient, exotic waters.

How much could I tell her without endangering her? She seemed to be the only one in the family with a sensible head on her shoulders. I thought once more about Katherine and whether my family would have been better prepared with some warning.

"Don't trust him," I finally admitted, hoping I wasn't putting her at greater risk. "I don't."

"Hm." She looked over at Damon, who was talking animatedly with Bram and Winfield. "Neither do I."

Bridget had chosen the next few venues to visit as far away as it was possible to get from where we were. The mansion of the Richards was near Fort Tryon on the northern tip of Manhattan, while the Fulton Ferry dock was at the southeastern end.

The slow ride in our carriages from downtown gave me an almost panopticon's view of city life. Slowly going up Fifth Avenue, I was amazed by the sheer difference in fortune of the people who made their home in New York – from the often shoeless newsboys and schmatta, or rag-sellers, to people like Winfield, who sat in his gilded private carriage, puffing on a cigar.

We stopped for lunch about halfway there at the Mount Vernon Hotel on Sixty-first Street, where Bridget continued to discuss her outfit for the wedding.

"… and Darla had her dress in muslin, out of respect for the war, but it's almost over, and I think I should have a new pair of earrings, don't you, Papa? Stefan, darling, there is the most fantastic pair of pearl earrings…"

Damon cleared his throat. "Bridget, you should absolutely have new earrings. And your outfit sounds good enough to eat, don't you agree, Stefan?"

I stood up from the table, unable to enjoy the nice repast of cold chicken, fresh bread, fish, and tea that had been set before us, and unable to listen to another word of my fiancee's mindless prattling or my brother's endless teasing.

"I must go take some air," I excused myself, and would have stumbled over the bench on my speedy way out if I didn't have the grace of a vampire. I should not have been exhausted; I'd endured far worse. Living hungry in the middle of Central Park and hunting small prey was far more physically demanding than sitting in a carriage, looking at houses, and listening to the youngest member of the Sutherland family babble on about meaningless things. But as I had not fed since the squirrel the day before, I was famished and weak, as if I was enduring a transatlantic journey.

A quick, silent trip to the kitchens revealed exactly what I had hoped – rats, of course. Not too many, and mostly in the breezeway between the cold house and the pantry. With a flash of my hand I grabbed one and broke its neck, sucking the poor thing dry, all without losing control. It was easy, with such disgusting fare.

A low noise, a muffled sigh, made me turn and look up guiltily, rat blood leaking down my lips.

Damon stood there holding a waitress around her throat, fangs out and ready to feast. She had the dumb, slightly breathless look of someone who was under a spell.

"I see we both slipped out for the same thing," Damon said, pleased. He raised a lip in disgust at the rat in my hand. "Although, really, you can do better."

He lifted his head back, ready to tear –

"Please – don't…" I put up my hand helplessly. "Please don't kill her," I begged.

Damon paused. "All right," he said gamely. "I won't kill her. As an early wedding present! Just for you."

I closed my eyes, seeing the horror of the future before me. By implying he wasn't going to kill this girl, as a present, there was the assumption that there would of course be other murders, later on.