The Craving (Chapter 4)

November 5, 1864

It feels like so long ago, but in reality little time has passed since my transformation, since my father killed me. It was barely a month past that Damon and I tried to save Katherine's life, and her blood saved ours. Barely a month since I was a living, warm-blooded human, who sustained himself on meals of meat and vegetables, cheese and wine – and who slept in a feather bed, with clean linen sheets.

Yet it feels like a lifetime, and by some definitions, I suppose it is.

But just as quickly as my fortunes turned after New Orleans, leaving me to live as a vagrant in a rocky hollow in the park, here I am at a proper desk under a leaded window, a thick rug at my feet. How quickly I am slipping back into human ways!

The Sutherlands seem like a kind family. I picture tempestuous Bridget and her long-suffering older sister as mirror versions of Damon and myself. I never appreciated how harmless Damon's and my father's fights were back when they were just about horses and girls. I was always terrified one of them would say or do something that would end forever what semblance of a family we had left.

Now that my father is dead and my brother and I are . . . what we are, I realize how much more serious things can get, and how simple and easy life was before.

I shouldn't even stay here, even tonight. I should sneak out the window and flee to my place of exile. Being enfolded in the warm, living embrace of the Sutherland family for any amount of time, no matter how short, is dangerous and deceptive. It makes me feel like I could almost belong to the world of humans again. They don't realize they have welcomed a predator into their midst. All that would need to happen is for me to lose control once, to slip from my room right now and take my fill of one of them, and their lives would be filled with tragedy – just as mine became when Katherine arrived on our doorstep.

Family has always been the most important thing to me, and I would be lying if I didn't admit how comforting it is to be among people who love one another, if only for one borrowed night. . . .

For the first time since I'd left New Orleans, I rose with the sun, intent to slip out of the mansion and disappear into the morning mists before anyone came to wake me. But it was hard to resist the pull of crisp linen sheets, the soft mattress, the shelves of books, and the painted ceiling of my room.

After admiring the fresco of winged cherubs above me, I pushed off the soft covers and forced myself out of bed. Every muscle in my body rippled under my pale skin, full of strength and Power, but every bone in my rib cage showed. The Sutherlands had taken my clothes to be washed but hadn't given me a nightshirt. I enjoyed the feeling of morning sunlight on my flesh, the glowing warmth fighting with the chill in the room. Though I'd never forgive Katherine for turning me into a monster, I was grateful at least for her lapis lazuli ring that protected me from the sun's otherwise fatal rays.

The window was open the slightest bit, ushering a cool breeze into the room and setting the diaphanous curtains aflutter. Though temperature no longer affected me, I closed the window, locking the latch with some puzzlement. I could have sworn all the windows had been shut tight last night. Before I had time to further consider the matter, the tell-tale thump of a heartbeat sounded close by, and after a light knock, the door cracked open. Lydia stuck her head in, then immediately blushed and looked away from my nearly naked form.

"Father was afraid you might try to leave without saying good-bye. I was sent to make sure you didn't charm a maid into helping you."

"I'm hardly in a state to sneak away," I said, covering my chest with my arms. "I will need my pants to do that."

"Henry will be up shortly with your trousers, freshly pressed," she said, keeping her eyes on the ground. "In the meantime, there is a bathing room just down the hall to the right. Please feel free to refresh yourself, and then come down to breakfast."

I nodded, feeling trapped.

"And, Stefan." Lydia looked up briefly and met my eye. "I do hope you'll be able to locate a shirt as well." Then she smiled and slipped away.

When I finally came downstairs for breakfast, the entire Sutherland clan was waiting for me – even Bridget, who was alive and stuffing toast into her face like she hadn't eaten in a fortnight. Except for a slight paleness to her complexion, it was impossible to tell that she'd nearly died the night before.

Everyone turned and gasped as I approached. Apparently, I cut a different figure from the hero in shirtsleeves the night before. With freshly polished fine Italian shoes, neat pants, a new clean shirt, and a borrowed jacket Winfield had sent up for me, I was every inch the gentleman. I'd even washed my face and combed my hair back.

"Cook made you some grits, if you like," Mrs. Sutherland said, indicating a bowl of gloppy white stuff. "We don't usually indulge, but thought our Southern guest might."

"Thank you, ma'am," I said, taking the empty seat next to Bridget and eyeing the spread on the large wooden table. After my mother passed away, Damon, my father, and I made it a habit to dine casually with the men who we employed on the plantation. Breakfast was often the simple stuff of workers, hominy and biscuits, bread and syrup, rashers of bacon. What was laid out at the Winfield residence put to shame the finest restaurants in Virginia. English-style toast in delicate wire holders, five different types of jam, two kinds of bacon, johnnycakes, syrup, even freshly squeezed orange juice. The delicate plates had blue Dutch patterns, and there was more silverware than I was accustomed to seeing at a formal dinner.

Wishing I still had a human appetite – and ignoring the fire in my veins that thirsted for blood – I pretended to dig in.

"Much obliged," I said.

"So this is my little sister's savior," said the one woman in the room I didn't know.

"Allow me to introduce the eldest of my daughters," Winfield said. "This is Margaret. First married. And first with grandchildren, we're hoping."

"Papa," Margaret admonished, before turning her attention back to me. "Pleased to meet you." Where Bridget was full of life and the plumpness of youth and Lydia was the elegant, cultivated one, Margaret had something of a practical and inquisitive good sense, an earthiness that showed in questioning blue eyes. Her hair was black and inclined to straightness.

"We were just discussing what prompted my child's rash actions," Winfield said, bringing the conversation back to the previous night.

"I don't know why I ran off," Bridget pouted, drawing deeply from a cup of orange juice. The older sisters gave each other looks, but their father leaned closer, worry lines marring his forehead. "I just felt that I absolutely had to leave. So I did."

"It was foolish and dangerous," her mother reprimanded, shaking her napkin. "You could have died!"

"I am glad to see you are doing so well today," I said politely. Bridget grinned, displaying teeth that had little bits of orange pulp stuck in them.

"Yes. About that." Margaret spoke up, tapping her egg spoon on the side of her plate. "You say you found her covered in blood in the park?"

"Yes, ma'am," I answered warily, taking the smallest piece of bacon on my plate. This sister sounded more astute than the others and wasn't afraid to ask uncomfortable questions.

"There was a lot of blood, and Bridget's dress was torn." Margaret pressed, "Did you find it odd that there was no actual wound?"

"Uh," I stammered. My mind raced. What could I say? The blood was someone else's?

"I thought there was a knife wound last night," Mrs. Sutherland said, pursing her lips and thinking. "But it was just clotted blood, and wiping it down cleared it away."

Margaret pierced me with her eyes.

"Maybe she was afflicted with a nosebleed . . . ?" I mumbled lamely.

"So you're saying that you didn't see any attacker when you came upon my sister?" Margaret asked.

"Oh, Meggie, you and your interrogations," Winfield said. "It's a miracle that Bridge is all right. Thank goodness Stefan here found her when he did."

"Yes. Of course. Thank goodness," Margaret said. "And what were you doing in the park last night by yourself?" she continued smoothly.

"Walking," I said, same as I had answered her father the night before.

In the bright light of morning, it struck me as odd that Winfield had asked me nothing more than my name and why I'd been in the park. In times like these, and after his daughter had just suffered a great blow, it was hardly standard to accept a stranger into one's home. Then again, my father had offered refuge to Katherine when she'd arrived in Mystic Falls, playing the part of an orphan.

A nagging piece of me wondered if our story could have ended differently, if the entire Salvatore brood would still be alive, if only we'd pressed Katherine for answers about her past, rather than tiptoeing around the tragedy she'd claimed had taken her parents' lives. Of course, Katherine had Damon and me so deeply in her thrall, perhaps it would have made no difference.

Margaret leaned forward, not politely giving up the way Winfield had the night before. "You're not from around here, I take it?"

"I'm from Virginia," I answered as she opened her mouth to form the next, obvious question. In a strange way, it made me feel better to offer this family something real. Besides, soon enough I would be out of this house, out of their lives, and it wouldn't matter what they knew about me.

"Whereabouts?" she pressed.

"Mystic Falls."

"I've never heard of it."

"It's fairly small. Just one main street and some plantations."

There was some shuffling movement under the table, and I could only assume that either Bridget or Lydia was trying to give Margaret a good kick. If the blow was successful, Margaret gave no sign.

"Are you an educated man?" she continued.

"No, ma'am. I planned to study at the University of Virginia. The war put a stop to that."

"War is good for no one," Winfield said as he stabbed a piece of bacon with his fork.

"The war put a stop to much casual travel back and forth between the states," Margaret added.

"What's that to do with anything?" Bridget demanded.

"Your sister is suggesting that it's an odd time for me to come north," I explained. "But my father recently died. . . ."

"From the war?" Bridget demanded breathlessly. Lydia and Mrs. Sutherland glared at her.

"Indirectly," I answered. A war had claimed my father's life, a war against vampires – against me. "My town . . . it burned, and there was nothing left for me anymore."

"So you came north," Lydia said.

"To try your hand at business, maybe?" Winfield suggested hopefully.

Here was a man with three daughters, three beautiful daughters, but no sons. No one to share cigars and brandy with, no one to push and encourage and compete with in the world of business. I was both worried and amused by the gleam in his eye when he looked at me. Surely there were families with sons in Manhattan who would make for more auspicious marital alliances.

"Whatever I can do, I aim to make my way in the world on my own," I replied, taking a sip of coffee. I would have to, without Lexi or Katherine to guide me. And if I ever saw Damon again, the only thing he would guide me toward was a newly sharpened stake.

"Where are you living?" Margaret continued. "Do you have family here?"

I cleared my throat, but before I had to tell my first real lie, Bridget groaned.

"Meggie, I'm bored of this interrogation!"

A hint of a smile bloomed on Lydia's lips, and she quickly hid it behind her napkin. "What would you prefer to talk about?"

"Yourself?" Margaret said with an arched brow.

"Yes, actually!" Bridget said, looking around the table. Her eyes glowed as green as Callie's, but with her petulance on full display, she no longer reminded me of my lost love. "I still don't know why I ran out on the party."

Margaret rolled her eyes. Lydia shook her head.

"I mean, you should have seen the looks I got!" she started up, waving her knife in the air for emphasis. "Flora's dress was the worst, especially considering she's a newly married woman. And my new sash – oh no, was it ruined last night? I would hate to have it ruined! Mama! Was it on me when Stefan brought me home? We have to go back to the park and look for it!"

"How about we go back to the park and look for the person who tried to kill you," Margaret suggested.

"We've already had a discussion with Inspector Warren about it. He promises a thorough investigation," Mrs. Sutherland said. "But, Bridget, you must promise not to run off from the Chesters' ball this evening or I will be forced to stand watch over you in your bedroom."

Bridget crossed her arms over her chest with a huff.

"And neither shall you run off," Mrs. Sutherland said more pointedly to Lydia. The middle sister blushed.

"Lydia has fallen in love with an Italian count," Bridget confided, her pout evaporating as she indulged in gossip. "We all hope he asks her hand in marriage – wouldn't that be splendid? Then we'd all be like royalty, sort of, and not just rich merchants. Imagine, Lydia a countess!"

Winfield laughed nervously. "Bridget . . ."

Bridget fluttered her thick eyelashes. "It's so wonderful that Lydia has a suitor, much less a count. After Meggie was wed, I was afraid Mother and Papa would become traditional and not let me marry until Lydia did and who knew how long that was going to take."

"Lydia is . . . particular," Mrs. Sutherland said.

"Oh really, Mama," Bridget rolled her eyes. "As if anyone even had an interest before. And now she has a count. It's really . . . it's really not fair, you know, if you think about it . . . if I had a proper coming out . . ."

I shifted in my seat, at once embarrassed for everyone, and yet glad to be involved in something as ordinary as a family squabble. This was the first time I'd been among company since leaving Lexi in New Orleans.

"So many handsome, strange men in our lives these days," Margaret said, somewhere between whimsy and warning. "What an odd coincidence, Mr. Salvatore. Perhaps I needn't make the grand tour, after all."

"Hush now, Margaret," Winfield said.

"And actually I have no one to go to the Chesters' with anyhow, Mama," Bridget was continuing, actually growing red in the face as if she was trying quite hard to cry. She looked at me sidelong the entire time. "I am sure Milash won't escort me after last night. . . . I am in dire need of rescue. . . ."

Bridget widened her green eyes at her father. Winfield frowned and stroked his muttonchops thoughtfully. In that moment, Bridget seemed as powerful as a vampire, able to compel her father to her every wish. Margaret put a hand to her head as if it ached.

"Mr. Salvatore will take you," Winfield said, gesturing at me with a fork full of biscuit. "He's rescued you once; I'm sure he's a gentleman who wouldn't leave you in distress again."

All eyes were turned on me. Bridget perked up, smiling at me like a kitten just offered a bowl of cream.

I balked.

"I'm afraid I haven't the proper attire . . ." I began.

"Oh, that is solved easily enough," Mrs. Sutherland said with a knowing smile.

"Once again," Lydia murmured, too low for anyone else to hear, "we are holding poor Mr. Salvatore at our mercy. With pants."