The Craving (Chapter 6)

After returning from the walk, I found myself being sewn into a brand-new suit while Mrs. Sutherland instructed the tailor on where to pin and prod me. I knew I had to leave, but I also couldn't tear myself away from Mrs. Sutherland quite yet. We spent the entire afternoon chatting about my mother and her French relatives, along with my wish to one day travel to Italy to see the Sistine Chapel.

Before I knew it, the tailor had made his final stitch, and night had arrived. Even I had to admit that my suit was fantastic. I looked like an urbane prince of industry in my pleated white shirtfront, silk top hat, and cravat. Winfield loaned me one of his pocket watches on a fob covered with a tasteful number of gold charms and gems, and I wore matching gold studs. I looked the very picture of humanity and was ashamed to be enjoying the part so thoroughly.

Bridget simpered when I offered her a hand getting up into the carriage. Her skirts were full and cumbersome, an apricot version of the white gown she wore just the night before. Cream-colored silk netting floated over everything, giving her a look somewhere between a dancer in a European painting and a giant pastry. She giggled and tripped and pretended to fall, throwing an arm around my neck.

"Save me again, kind sir," she laughed, and I reminded myself that I had only to entertain her for another couple hours. Then, no matter the affection I felt for Mrs. Sutherland, I vowed I would make good on my promise to leave the family to their lives, disappearing into the crowd of the dance and returning to my home in the park.

After a short ride, we approached another mansion of considerable size. It was solid stone, like a castle, but filled with windows. I helped Bridget from the coach and we took our places in the receiving line.

In my human life I had been to many dances, yet I was not prepared for a New York City ball.

There was someone to take my coat and hat – and because this wasn't Mystic Falls, where everyone of renown knew one another, I was given a ticket with a number on it to retrieve my things at the end of the evening. We approached the ballroom through a seemingly endless hallway of silver mirrors lit with candles and chandeliers, sparkling as I imagined it must have been like in Versailles. A thousand silvered reflections of Bridget and myself filled the space behind the glass.

A full orchestra of violins, cellos, horns, and flutes played in the corner, the musicians dressed in black suits. The room was filled, wall-to-wall, with dancers in the most amazing array of dress I had ever seen. The young women lifted delicate gloved hands with sparkling diamond bracelets, then twirled in gowns that ranged in color from bloodred to dusty gold. Gauzy skirts swished in time with the high-paced mazurka the orchestra played, netting, tulle, lace, and the finest silk petticoats floating like petals strewn across a lake.

If my eyes were dazzled by the sight of the dancers, the scents of the room almost overpowered the rest of my senses: expensive perfumes, huge vases of exotic flowers, sweat, and punch, and somewhere someone was bleeding from a pin left in her dress by a careless maid.

"You're supposed to fetch your lady a dance card," Lydia murmured into my ear as I stood there, stunned by the opulent and overwhelming scene before me.

"Is that . . . is that Adelina Patti?" I stuttered, pointing at a demure-looking woman standing in the corner and surrounded by admirers. "The opera singer?"

I had seen photographs of her. My father had wanted his sons to have working knowledge of their Italian culture and heritage.

"Yes," Bridget said, rolling her eyes and stamping a pretty, satin-covered foot. "And over there is Mayor Gunther, and over there is John D. Rockefeller, and . . . can you take me to my seat now? I want to see who asks me to dance."

Lydia let out a polite cough that sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

"In the South," I whispered to her out of the corner of my mouth, "it's considered impolite to dance with your escort overmuch."

Lydia put a gloved hand to her own mouth, covering her smile. "I've heard that they still actually dance the quadrille in the South and have no parlor games at their functions. Good luck, Mr. Salvatore."

And she glided off into the crowd. Margaret gave me a tiny smirk. She was on the arm of her husband, Wally, a short fellow with a pince-nez and a serious bent. But when she whispered to him, a smile broke out and he was radiant. I felt an odd jab of jealousy. I would never know what that was like, the simple rituals of a close-knit couple.

The orchestra struck up a waltz.

Bridget stuck out her lower lip. "And me without a dance card yet."

"My lady," I said, inwardly sighing. I gave her a slight bow and offered her my hand.

Bridget was a fine dancer and it was almost pleasurable twirling her across the floor. I could forget where and who I was for the few minutes of the waltz: just a man in a tailcoat, feet flying, in a room full of beautiful people. She turned her leaf-green eyes up to me, and for one beautiful moment I could pretend she was Callie, alive and well and getting the happy ending she so desperately deserved.

The illusion came to an end the moment the music stopped.

"Lead me by the edge of the dancers," Bridget begged. "I want everyone to see us!"

She dragged me past the refreshment room, where all manner of exotic food was laid out. Delicate ices made from foreign fruit, real Vienna coffee, blancmange, tiny chocolate cakes, and glass upon crystal glass of champagne to wash it down. For the hungrier set there seemed to be every kind of fowl, from quail to goose, neatly carved into small pieces so a dancer could eat quickly and return to the floor.

Once again I wished I was hungry for normal human food. But instead I indulged in a glass of champagne.

"Hilda, Hilda," Bridget called out in a voice that carried well considering how crowded the space was. A beautiful girl in a rose-pink gown turned from her gentleman friend, face lighting up when she saw Bridget. Her eyes traveled up and down me with a quick flick of her eyelashes.

"This is Stefan Salvatore," Bridget said. "He is the one who rescued me!"

"Mademoiselle," I said with a slight bow, taking her fingertips and bringing them to my lips. Bridget gave me a look that was somewhere between jealousy and pleasure that I was so polite.

"Brooklyn Bridgey! Who's your friend?" A dapper young man with a twinkle in his eye and giant grin sidled up to us. He had a sharp nose and curly black hair; rosy dots appeared on his cheeks that made him look vaguely tubercular.

"This is Stefan Salvatore," Bridget told him, exactly as proudly and carefully as she had with Hilda. "He rescued me when I was overcome in the park!"

"Pleasure to meet you! Abraham Smith. You can call me Bram." He grabbed my hand and shook it hard. "That was terribly naughty of you, leaving the party unescorted like that, Bridgey." Bram shook a finger at her and she pouted.

"Brooklyn Bridgey?" I asked, my head spinning a little.

"Why, the Brooklyn Bridge is only going to be the biggest, most fantastic suspension bridge ever built!" Bram said, eyes lighting up. "No more ferries, no sir. We'll drive ourselves back and forth across the mighty East River!"

"Oh look!" Bridget squealed, pointing in a very unladylike manner. "There's Lydia and her beau! Let's go talk to them!"

I gave Hilda and Bram a helpless salute good-bye as Bridget directed me toward her sister with an iron grip.

The Italian count was surrounded by admirers, including Lydia. I caught glimpses of him as we walked closer. His raven hair gleamed, and his black formal suit fit him perfectly. He moved with a careless grace waving his arms as he told his story. The glint of a ring shimmered on his hand.

The truth hit me only moments before he turned, as if he'd been expecting my arrival. I did my best to hide my shock when I looked into my brother's ice-blue eyes.