The Craving (Chapter 7)

Every muscle in my body tensed. Time seemed to stop as we stared into each other's eyes, both of us silently challenging the other to give himself away. My chest felt tight as anger coiled through my body.

The last time I'd seen Damon, he'd been standing over me with a stake, just after he'd killed Callie. His cheeks had been sunken, his body gaunt from his time in captivity. Now he looked like his human self, the young man who charmed everyone from barmaids to grandmothers. Clean-shaven, dressed smartly, and playing the part of an Italian count flawlessly. Acting human. He had everyone in the room fooled.

Damon raised one eyebrow at me and the twitch of a smile appeared at the corner of his mouth. To any onlooker, it would have seemed just like he was pleased to meet a new acquaintance.

I knew better. Damon was enjoying his charade and waiting to see how I reacted.

"Stefan Salvatore, may I introduce Count Damon DeSangue," Lydia said.

Damon gave a perfect bow, just barely bending at the waist.

"DeSangue . . ." I repeated.

"Count DeSangue," Damon corrected in good humor, affecting an Italian accent. He smiled, revealing a straight set of gleaming white teeth.

No, not here, I thought furiously. Not here in New York, not here among these innocent, well-meaning Sutherlands. Had Damon followed me here, or had he arrived first? He had been here long enough to attach himself to poor Lydia. And long enough to trick all of New York society. Is it possible that, in this teeming city, we both managed to become involved with the Sutherland family completely by coincidence?

Damon was regarding me now, although the icy twinkle of sardonic humor was never far from his eyes, as if he guessed at what I was thinking.

"Stefan, Damon – I just know you two are going to be like brothers," Bridget gushed to me.

"Well then," Damon said, a smirk pulling the corner of his mouth. "Hello, brother! And where are you from, Stefan?"

"Virginia," I answered shortly.

"Oh really? Because I was recently in New Orleans and could have sworn I met a gentleman who looked just like you. Have you been there?"

Lydia leaned in closer, her eyes bright with pride. Bridget nodded eagerly at every word Damon said. Even Bram and Hilda looked entranced. I gripped my champagne glass so tightly I was surprised it didn't shatter. "No. I can't say I've ever been."

The happy tinkle of silverware from the refreshment table suddenly rose to the foreground. Hundreds of people, hundreds of blades, and one very angry, unpredictable brother before me.

"Interesting," he said. "Well, perhaps we will go back there, together. I hear they have a magnificent circus."

The orchestra began to play again, another fast-paced dance. But that was noise in the background. The ball and its participants faded away. Right now, Damon and I had our eyes locked on each other.

"If you even try something," I said low enough that only he could hear, squaring my shoulders and unconsciously tensing for a fight.

"Don't think you can best me," Damon said, rolling to the balls of his feet.

The group of people we were with looked back and forth at us, clearly aware that something was going on, but unsure what exactly.

"I'm feeling a bit thirsty," I finally said aloud, not moving my eyes from his, trying to think of how to get Damon away from my new friends. "Care to join me for a drink?"

"Smashing, I'd love one," said Bram eagerly, hoping to break the tension.

"Love to," Damon said, mocking Bram's tone. "But duty – and the mazurka – calls." He turned to Hilda and bowed. "May I?"

"Oh, I'd love to, but Bram . . ." She started to hold up the dance card that hung around her wrist from a pink ribbon. Then her eyes widened, dilating, and she was staring – but no longer at the card. I looked at Damon. He was also staring, compelling her. Showing off, in front of everyone – in front of me – just how powerful he was.

He was sending me a message.

"Oh, he won't mind," Hilda decided and took Damon's arm. He led her off, smiling back at me. The tips of his fangs glittered.

"I wish I had his charm," Bram said a little wistfully. "He's got all you ladies wrapped around his finger."

Lydia blushed prettily. She did not look after Hilda with a worried expression. She had the calm confidence of someone who knew exactly where her lover stood in his relation to her. Damon had no doubt compelled her to act as such. He had amassed a considerable amount of Power, very quickly.

"Where exactly did you two meet?" I asked, trying to sound casual.

"Oh, it was so romantic," Bridget answered quickly. "Almost as romantic as you finding me, helpless, in the park. . . ."

"Let your sister speak, Bridgey," Bram interrupted.

Lydia smiled, all of her studied politeness and mannered behavior melting away. "It really was a bit like a fairy tale. It was raining, a sudden downpour. I remember very particularly that the sun had been shining just moments earlier. Unprepared for the change of weather, Mother and I became soaked. My new hat was ruined, and all my packages were dripping wet. I swear a dozen carriages must have passed us by without stopping. And then – one of them paused, and the door opened, and there he was, extending his hand to me."

Her eyes grew soft. "He offered to give up his seat, but we got in with him. . . ."

Bram made tsk-tsking noises; Lydia smiled, shrugging prettily.

"I know, I know . . . 'taking a ride with a strange man.' Very bad of us. But he was so polite, and charming . . . and we had such a lovely ride . . . and then the sun came out and we hardly noticed. . . ."

My mind raced. Had Damon compelled every carriage driver in Manhattan to avoid Lydia and her mother? Was it even possible to compel that many people at once? And what about the rain? Had that been luck . . . or something else entirely? Damon wasn't capable of compelling the weather. If that were a power available to vampires, I would have heard of it from Lexi or even Katherine. Right?

I studied Lydia. She wore a simple, narrow ribbon around her neck with a single pearl dangling from the front. The skin there was smooth, unblemished – and unbitten. If Damon wasn't feeding on Lydia, then what did he want from her?

"Someone said something about being thirsty . . . ?" Bram said hopefully, rubbing his hands together. "I have a terrible desire for more champagne."

"Yes, thirst is a terrible thing," I said, "but you'll have to excuse me." Then I turned and cut my way through the merrily dancing crowd, determined to search out my brother before he had the chance to slit anyone's throat.