The Craving (Chapter 16)

November 12, 1864

Life with Damon is like playing chess with a mad person. I can think of a thousand different possibilities to defend against, a thousand different moves he could make, and then he goes and changes the rules of the game.

It's just his newfound predilection for casual violence that makes him so incalculable, but the way he revels in it. Though blood is our diet, we as vampires at least have a modicum of self-will. Damon doesn't have to let his dark side win, and yet he embraces it.

I view this change in him with horror and guilt, as I was the one who set him down the path of the vampire. Katherine was the one who changed him, but I force-fed him his first human.

After seeing his message to me I can't consider leaving the Sutherlands until I have figured out a way to keep them all safe. What my brother did to Callie… it obviously isn't beyond him to just dispose of the entire family once they serve their purpose.

But when will he take action? At the wedding? After the wedding? After the honeymoon? Next year? Could I spirit the girls away somewhere? Could I convince them to hide? Could I compel them to? Damon managed to find me here, could he find me – or them – anywhere?

I have to come up with a plan, in case Damon doesn't just leave town with his newfound fortune.

Of course, the simplest solution would be to kill Damon.

Voil�� – one maniacal, insane, unpredictable, murderous vampire gone, the world, and myself, a thousand times safer. That's assuming I could do it. I am so much weaker than he is, it would have to be done by surprise or guile or something equally underhanded, like a knife in the back. Like he killed Callie.

There isn't any point in thinking that way. I will not stoop to his level. He is my brother. And as awful as he is, he is the only relative left to me.

The next day, time flew by as if it had nothing better to do than gallop me toward matrimony. Before I knew it, I'd been stuffed into my suit, force-fed pancakes, and spirited over one hundred blocks north to the altar, where I stood awaiting my fate, as the Sutherlands unknowingly awaited their own.

Damon and I stood side by side in Woodcliff Manor's great hall – the pretty family chapel nearby was far too small for Bridget's tastes. The Richards were kind enough to let her use their home at the tip of Manhattan Island. It was really more of a castle than a home, with gray towers, parapets, and decorative portcullises, all made from the gray rock that jutted seamlessly out of the rocky promontory on which it sat.

Not so far from there, outside the arched gothic windows, were the remains of Fort Tryon, the site of a sad defeat of Continental forces under George Washington by the British.

My thoughts drifted as I imagined redcoats and scrappy American soldiers and puffs of gunpowder… and then something occurred to me. Katherine could have witnessed such a battle. I never asked how old she was – perhaps Damon did – but she was far older than her appearance suggested. She had probably witnessed events I only read about in history books.

I shivered at the thought, but the chill was instantly dispelled by the incredible heat in the room. Damon and I stood in front of a crowd of more than two hundred of New York's finest socialites, all sitting uncomfortably in hastily pulled together pews. They had no idea how dangerous it was for them to be there.

I pulled at my collar and tie, which suddenly felt too tight, my vision blurring. The room shifted and morphed, and for just a second, the finery and skin of every wedding attendee melted off as though they'd been caught up in a blaze. Skin flaked off like corn husks, leaving behind pure-white bone and twisted tendons.

"Stefan!" Damon hissed, elbowing me. I realized then that I was clutching his arm. "Do I need to call a medic for you?" he asked sarcastically.

I shook my head, wondering what illness had overcome me. The crowd came back into focus, alive, happy, laughing, and fanning themselves discreetly.

Even I had to admit that Mrs. Sutherland had done a fantastic job working with Mrs. Richards and her housekeepers. A rich red carpet had been laid out, and it was scattered with so many rose petals you could scarcely see the fabric beneath. Pink, white, and deep, deep red, it looked like a beautiful trail through a magnificent rose garden. Garlands of expensive and exotic flowers hung along the pews, and the scent of orange and lemon was heavy in the air. Overhead hung giant balls of flowers like fireworks in petals. Vases in every gothic arched nook and cranny held elegant arrangements of grasses and blooming branches of quince, enhancing the woodland effect.

Everyone wore full formal regalia, tailcoats for the men, some with diplomatic sashes. Heavy moire silks for the older women, lighter for the young women, yards and yards of fabric swirled around their feet like more rose petals. Hats were decked out in plumes and gems and sometimes entire birds. And the real heirloom jewelry had been pulled out for this occasion, pearls and diamonds and rubies on every neck and wrist, some gems the size of my thumb.

All the women had fans, of course, made from silk and painted in Japan or England, and they tried to flutter them delicately, but most wound up just flapping them as fast as they could. The ladies' countenances remained stubbornly rosy despite their efforts to keep pale.

Everyone whispered and talked excitedly, and of course I could tune in to any conversation I felt like listening to with my enhanced hearing. I almost didn't mean to, because it was the same in every seat:

"… so quick. Only met a month ago. Did you hear the story? He was so chivalrous…."

"… lucky girl. I hope my Lucretia marries as well…."

"Apparently, the youngest Beaumont threw herself at DeSangue, but he only had eyes for Lydia…."

"… such a handsome man! And a count!…"

"… yes, but who's that other one again? Marrying Bridget?"

I closed my eyes, wishing I could close my ears. How I longed to be back in my grotto in the park.

"Seems like old times, doesn't it, brother?" Damon sighed, adjusting one of his cuffs. "In another life, you and Rosalyn would be married already."

"Shut up," I said. He was right, though. If Katherine hadn't killed my childhood playmate, I would have married her. Back then, I thought a forced marriage with someone I didn't love was the worst fate imaginable. How innocent I was….

I continued smiling, although it must have looked forced by that point. My eyes darted over the crowd, seeking out anyone in a badly matched scarf. That morning I had managed to grab and drain a pair of white doves, initially intended to be released as a romantic gesture after the wedding ceremony. But when was the last time Damon had fed? Or did he have a big, bloody feast planned?

"Look at us, together," Damon whispered, nodding at someone in the crowd and smiling. "We make quite a handsome pair."

"I'm doing this," I whispered, "to save lives. Now be quiet."

Damon rolled his eyes. "You're no fun, brother. I hope you develop a sense of humor soon, or it's going to be a loooooong eternity."

The wedding march began, saving me from having to respond.

Margaret's husband and Bram, ushers, came down the aisle first. The remaining ushers were callow youths who flirted outrageously with the bridesmaids they escorted. The girls wore pretty matching peach gowns and absolutely giant hats… but I noticed that one had a slightly different accessory from the rest. Hilda wore a hastily tied kerchief around her neck.

I glared at Damon.

He shrugged. "I got a little peckish waiting around."

In truth, I was a little relieved – it meant he wasn't starving himself in anticipation of something later.

Finally came Winfield, proudly striding down the aisle with a daughter on each arm. Lydia walked regally and easily. She wore a simple white gown of heavy material whose folds rustled with her movements. It went to the top of her neck and the bottom of her wrists, and its only ornamentation was a line of pearl buttons down the front. A net veil hung behind her, floating down her back. She looked like a fairy-tale queen, and smiled with a secretive look that only added to her beauty.

On Winfield's left arm was Bridget, wearing her brocade and satin. She actually looked quite beautiful, if a bit overdone. An enormous lace veil perched on top of her head like a crown. It was hard to imagine, now, that I'd ever seen anything of Callie in her. Where Bridget was frilly and immature, Callie had been independent and practical.

Thinking of Callie now was a bad idea.

Time slowed down. Bridget's foot rose and fell, bringing her a few inches closer to me. Her skirts drew forward, as if of their own accord. Her mouth opened and closed in a giggle that sounded far-off and distorted. And then came the distinctive scent of lemon and ginger.

Everything blurred – Katherine?

Suddenly, instead of Bridget coming toward me dressed as a bride was the woman who had brought me to this place. Her thick black hair was caught up in a lace veil, revealing her perfect shoulders and neck. The blue cameo gleamed on her neck. She lowered her head demurely, but beneath her long lashes her eyes danced mischievously in my direction. She pursed her lips and I felt my knees weaken.

Did Damon see her, too? I looked askance at my brother, to see if he was thinking or seeing the same thing I was. Whatever compelled me to feel the way I did about Katherine, true love or a vampire's Power, I was still under her spell, haunted by her. But Damon's face was a perfect mask of happiness and love.

Time started back up again. Bridget resumed her place in my sight, smiling excitedly up at me.

And then the girls were before us, and the priest was there, and rings were in our hands.

It was, thankfully, a fairly short ceremony. The priest gave a speech about love and read several nice passages from the Bible that I would have liked in any other circumstance. I wasn't sure whether to pray that the priest go on, and on, and on, and give me as much time as possible before the inevitable, or if he should just hurry up and get it over with.

"If anyone here knows of any impediment why these two couples may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, you do now confess it."

I looked around the room, hoping someone would stand up and object. Maybe Margaret would speak out, with some sort of proof that Damon DeSangue wasn't who he said he was, or that I was some sort of Confederate spy, or… The oldest sister shook her head and gritted her teeth, but kept silent. I may have imagined it, but I think her mother's hand had an iron grip on her knee.

Damon went first, marrying the elder bride. I wasn't listening; there seemed to be a dull roar in my ears that was so loud I was surprised no one else could hear it.

What was going to happen when it was over? Would the Sutherlands make it through this night? Would I be forced, on my wedding day, to fight my own brother to the death?

"Repeat after me," the priest finally said. I did as I was told.

"I, Stefan Salvatore, take thee, Bridget Lynn Cupbert Sutherland, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till… death us do part."

I almost choked, and could only hope that the audience thought I was overwhelmed with emotion.

"I, Bridget Lynn Cupbert Sutherland, take thee, Stefan, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part." She forgot my surname, and from the look in her eyes it was because she was thinking about the night before.

And then there was a ring in my hand. A simple gold band with my and Bridget's initials inscribed on the inside. Precious metal binding me to my fate.

I took Bridget's hand. My voice came out surprisingly clear and calm. "With this ring, I thee wed, and with my worldly goods I thee endow, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." I slipped it on her finger. She squealed in joy.

I kissed her. It was hard and quick, hopefully long enough for the audience to appreciate. Bridget clung to me, trying to make the moment last. She tasted of mint. I felt terrible.

And just like that, I was a married vampire.