The Craving (Chapter 3)

No sooner had I left the park when a hansom cab flew around the corner, followed by a policeman on horseback. I fell back into the shadows, for one breathless moment overwhelmed by the clamor.

I had thought New Orleans was big – and compared to Mystic Falls, it was. Buildings, businesses, and boats were crowded into a small, frenetic area by the Mississippi River. But it was nothing compared to Manhattan, where alabaster buildings rose high in the sky and people from Italy, Ireland, Russia, Germany – even China and Japan – walked the streets, selling their goods.

Even at night, New York City pulsated with life. Fifth Avenue was lit by a row of happy, hissing gas lanterns that gave a warm, rich glow to the cobbled street. A giggling couple bent close together, wrapping their coats more tightly around themselves as the wind whistled past. A newsboy shouted out headlines about factories on fire and corruption in city hall. Hearts beat in a frenetic cacophony, thumping and racing. The trash, the perfumes, and even just the simple smell of clean, soapy skin clung to the streets like ropy vines of kudzu back home.

After I regained my calm, I ran into the closest shadows beyond the light cast by gas lamps, the girl heavy in my arms. There was a doorman at a residency hotel up the block. As soon as he unfolded a newspaper, I staggered past him as fast as I could with my burden. Of course, if I had been at the peak of my Power, if I had been feeding on humans this whole time, it would have been nothing to compel the doorman to forget he saw anything. Better yet, I could have run straight to Seventy-third Street and been no more than a blur to the human eye.

At Sixty-eighth Street, I hid beneath a damp bush as a drunk stumbled toward us. In the close confines of the branches, there was nothing to distract me from the sweet scent of the girl's blood. I tried not to inhale, cursing the desire that made me yearn to rip her throat out. When the drunk passed, I dashed north to Sixty-ninth Street, praying no one would see me and stop to question me about the unconscious girl in my arms. But in my haste, I kicked a stone, sending it clattering louder than a gunshot down the cobbled street.

The drunk whirled around. "Hulloo?" he slurred.

I pressed myself against the limestone wall of a mansion, saying a silent prayer that he would continue on his way. The man hesitated, peering around with bleary eyes, then collapsed on to the pavement with an audible snore.

The girl let out another moan and shifted in my arms. It wouldn't be long before she woke and realized – with a loud scream, no doubt – that she was in the arms of a strange man. Steeling myself, I counted to ten. Then as if all the demons in hell were after me, I broke out into an uneven sprint, not even bothering to try to hold my charge gently. Sixty-ninth Street, Seventieth . . . A stray drop of the girl's blood spattered my cheek. A footstep echoed behind me. A horse whinnied in the distance.

Soon we were at Seventy-second Street. Just one more block and we would be there. I would drop her off at her doorstep and sprint back to the –

But One East Seventy-third Street made me pause.

The house I grew up in was enormous, built by my father with the money he had made after coming to this country from Italy. Veritas Estate had three floors, a wide, sunny porch that wrapped around the entire structure, and narrow columns that stretched high to the second story. It was equipped with every luxurious feature available during the Northern Blockade.

But this house – or mansion, rather – was enormous. A chateau made out of bone-white limestone, it took up nearly the entire block. Close-set windows lined every floor like watchful eyes. Wrought iron balconies, not unlike the ones that adorned Callie's house in New Orleans, hung at each level, dry brown vines clinging to the metal curlicues. There were even pointed, European-style pinnacles that boasted carved gargoyles.

How fitting that the house I had to approach was guarded by monsters.

I walked up to the giant front door, which was carved from dark wood. Depositing the girl gently on the stoop, I lifted the brass latch and knocked three times. I was about to turn on my heel to return to the park when the massive door flew open, as if it were no heavier than a garden gate. A servant stood at attention. He was tall and rail-thin, and he wore a simple black suit. We looked at each other for a moment, then at the girl on the stoop.

"Sir . . ." the butler called to an unseen figure behind him, his voice surprisingly calm. "It's Miss Sutherland . . ."

There were cries and shufflings. Almost immediately the entryway was crowded by far too many people, all of whom looked concerned.

"I found her in the park," I started.

I got no further.

Petticoats and heavy silk rustled as what seemed like half a dozen screaming women, servants, and men rushed out, fluttering around the girl like a flock of panicked geese. The smell of human blood was thick, making me light-headed. A richly dressed older woman – the mother, I assumed – immediately put a hand to her daughter's neck to feel for a heartbeat.

"Henry! Get Bridget inside!" she ordered.

The butler gently scooped her up, unflinching when the blood began to soak into his cream waistcoat. A housekeeper followed, taking orders from the still-bellowing mother, who waved maids on their various tasks.

"Winfield, send the boy to fetch a doctor! Have Gerta draw a hot bath. Get the cook to prepare a cosset and some herbed spirits! Remove her bodice immediately and unlace her corset – Sarah, go to the trunk of old linens and cut us some bandages. Lydia, send for Margaret."

The crowd filtered back through the door, one by one, except for a young boy in knickers and a cap who went dashing off, his shoes hitting the street with sharp taps as he ran into the night. It was like the house, having spewed forth a few moments of life and family and vitality, now sucked its occupants back inside to its warmth and protection.

Even if I had wished to, I would have been unable to follow after them. Humans must invite their doom in – whether they are aware of it or not. Without an invitation inside we vampires cannot enter any home, exiled from the warm hearths and friendly companionship that houses promise, left out in the night to simply watch.

I turned to go, already having stayed far longer than I had intended.

"Hold there, young man."

The voice was so confident, deep, and stentorian that I was pulled back as if compelled by some Power.

Standing in the doorway was a figure I surmised to be the man of the house and father of the girl I had saved. He was happily fat, with the kind of girth that causes a man to stand back on his heels. He wore expensive clothes made from wool and tweed, well tailored but in casual patterns. Comfortable summed up his entire demeanor, from his ginger muttonchops to his sparkling black eyes to the half-smile that pulled at the left side of his mouth. It seemed he had worked hard for a large portion of his life; calloused hands and a redness about his neck attested to the fact that he hadn't inherited his wealth.

For a moment the thought flashed through my head: How easy it would be to lure him out here. One more step . . . His corpulent body would provide me with enough blood to sate my hunger for days. I felt my jaw ache with the desire that would coax my fangs out, that would bring this man his death.

But despite the many temptations I'd faced tonight, I had left that life behind me.

"I was just leaving, sir. I'm glad your daughter is safe," I said, taking a step backward toward the shadows.

The man put a meaty hand on my arm, stopping me. His eyes narrowed, and though I could have killed him in an instant, I was surprised at a sudden nervous fluttering in my stomach. "What's your name, son?"

"Stefan," I answered. "Stefan Salvatore."

I realized immediately that telling him my real name like that was stupid, given the mess I had made of things in New Orleans and Mystic Falls.

"Stefan," he repeated, looking me up and down. "Not going to press for a reward?"

I tugged on my shirt cuffs, embarrassed at my disheveled appearance. My black pants, with my journal tucked into the back pocket, were frayed. My shirt was pulled out and hanging in loose folds around my suspenders. No hat, no tie, no waistcoat, and above all that, I was dirty and smelled faintly of the outdoors.

"No, sir. Just glad to help," I murmured.

The man was silent, as if he were having trouble processing my words. I wondered if the shock of seeing his daughter, bloodied and frail, had put him in something of a fog. Then he shook his head.

"Nonsense!" He clasped my right shoulder. "I would give anything to keep my youngest safe. Come inside. I insist! Share a cigar and let me toast your rescue of my baby girl."

He tugged me into the house, as though I were a stubborn dog on a leash. I started to protest, but fell silent the moment I stepped into the grand foyer. The dark wainscoting was cherry wood. The stained glass windows that were meant to illuminate the doorway during the day sparkled even at night, their colors jewel-like under the gaslight. A giant, formal stairway climbed to the next floor, the balustrade looking as though it had been carved from whole trunks. In my human life, I'd wished to be a scholar of architecture, and I could have gladly studied this home for hours.

But before I could fully appreciate the entryway, the man herded me through a hall and into a cozy parlor. A roaring orange fire commanded attention on the far wall. High-backed chairs with silk cushions were scattered around the room and the walls were papered in pine green. A snooker set was discreetly placed behind a couch, and cabinets of books, globes, and assorted curiosities framed high casement windows. My father, a collector of books and fine objects, would have loved this room, and my chest tightened at the realization that I would surpass my own father in life experience.

"Cigar?" he offered, pulling out a box.

"No thank you, sir," I said. The cigars were the finest quality, made from my home state's tobacco. At one time, I would have been more than happy to accept. But even the sound of a bird's beak scraping against bark almost overwhelmed my heightened senses; the thought of sucking in clouds of black smoke was unbearable.

"Hmmm. Doesn't partake." He raised a craggy eyebrow doubtfully. "You'll not bow out on some spirits, I hope?"

"No, sir. Thank you, sir."

The proper words came out of my mouth even as I paced back and forth.

"That's my boy." He prepared my drink, an apricot-colored liquid poured out of a cut crystal decanter.

"So you found my daughter in the park," he said, offering me the brandy. I couldn't help holding the sparkling glass up to the light. It would have been beautiful even without my vampire senses, scattering every stray beam like iridescent dragonflies.

I nodded at my host and took a small sip, sitting down when he motioned to a leather chair. The warm, sweet spirits poured over my tongue, both comforting me and making me feel strangely uneasy at the same time. I had gone from living in a park to sipping fine liqueur in a mansion with a very wealthy man in the course of one short night. And at the same time that I longed to sprint back into the darkness – the loneliness that pervaded my very being begged me to linger. I had not spoken to anyone in two weeks, but here I was, invited into a veritable palace of human activity. I could sense at least a dozen servants and family members in the few rooms nearby, their heady scent indistinguishable to all but myself, and the two dogs I knew were in the kitchen.

My benefactor regarded me strangely, and I made myself pay attention.

"Yes, sir. I found her in a clearing by the remains of the old Seneca Village."

"What were you doing in the park so late at night?" he asked, fixing me with his eyes.

"Walking," I said evenly.

I braced myself for what would come next, the uncomfortable series of questions that would assess my station in life, though my ripped clothes surely gave some indication. If I were him, I would have pressed a few dollars into my hand and sped me out the door. After all, New York was not short on predators, and though he couldn't know it, probably could not even imagine it, I was the worst sort.

But his next words surprised me. "Down on your luck, son?" he asked, his expression softening. "What was it – tossed out of your father's house? A scandal? Duel? Caught on the wrong side of the war?"

My mouth gaped open. How did he know I wasn't just some vagrant?

He seemed to guess my thought.

"Your shoes, son, show that you are obviously a gentleman, regardless of your current, eh, circumstances," he said, eyeing them. I looked at them myself – scuffed and dirty, I hadn't shined them since Louisiana. "The cut is Italian and the leather is fine. I know my leather." He tapped his own shoe, which looked to be made from crocodile. "It's how I got my start. I'm Winfield T. Sutherland, owner of Sutherland's Mercantile. Some of my neighbors made their money from oil or railroads, but I made my fortune honestly – by selling people what they needed."

The door to the study opened and a young woman I'd seen downstairs came in. She was composed and graceful, with a step that was both regal and efficient. Her cap was simple – almost like a servant's – but it accentuated her refined features. She was a rarefied version of the girl I had found in the park. Her hair was a more subtle golden shade, and her curls fell naturally in soft ringlets. Her eyelashes were as thick but longer, framing blue eyes with just a touch of gray in them. Her cheekbones were a trifle higher and her expressions more subdued.

My human appreciation of her beauty fought with my vampire's cold appraisal of her body: healthy and young.

"The doctor has just arrived, but Mama thinks she will be fine," the girl said calmly. "The wound is not as deep as it first seemed, and appears to be mending itself already. It is by all accounts a miracle."

I shifted in my chair, knowing that I had been the reluctant source of that "miracle."

"My daughter Lydia," Winfield introduced. "The most queenly of my three graces. That was Bridget whom you found. She's a bit . . . ah . . . tempestuous."

"She ran off by herself from a ball," Lydia said through a forced smile. "I think you might be looking for a slightly stronger word than 'tempestuous,' Papa."

I liked Lydia immediately. She had none of the joie de vivre that Callie had, but she possessed an intelligence and sense of humor that became her. I even liked her father, despite his huff and bluster. In a way, this reminded me of my own home, of my own family, back when I had one.

"You have done us a great service, Stefan," Winfield said. "And forgive me if I'm speaking out of turn, but I suspect that you don't have a proper home to return to. Why don't you stay the night here? It is too late for you to go anywhere, and you must be exhausted."

I held up my hands. "No, I couldn't."

"Surely you must," Lydia said.

"I . . ." Say no. The image of Callie's green eyes rose before me, and I thought of my vow to live apart from humans. But the comforts of this beautiful house reminded me so much of the human life I'd left behind in Mystic Falls, I found it difficult to do what I knew I should.

"I insist, boy." Winfield put a meaty hand on my shoulder, forcing me out of the room. "It's the least we can offer as a thank-you. A good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast."

"That's very kind, but . . ."

"Please," Lydia said, a little smile on her face. "We are ever so grateful."

"I should really – "

"Excellent!" Winfield clapped. "It's settled. We'll even have your clothes cleaned and pressed."

Like a horse being steered through a series of groomers before a race, the Sutherlands' housekeeper ushered me up several flights of steps to a back wing of the house that overlooked an east-facing alleyway. Instead of my usual hollow in the rocks by the stolen gravestones, I would sleep on a giant four-poster feather bed in a room with a roaring fire, in a house of humans that welcomed me happily and quickly as one of their own.

The vampire in me remained hungry and nervous. But that didn't prevent the human in me from savoring a taste of the life I had lost.