The Craving (Chapter 9)

Fifteen minutes later I stood next to my brother at the outskirts of the dance, waiting for the music to stop. Everyone twirled around, their skirts swishing in perfect synchronicity to the music, all of them oblivious to the fact that two dangerous murderers stood among them.

"Follow my lead," Damon said out the side of his mouth.

"Go to hell," I said out the corner of mine, smiling at Margaret as she passed.

"Been there. Not to my liking," he answered, taking two glasses of champagne off a tray and handing one to me.

"There you are," Bridget squealed, running up to me. She bounced up and down with excitement, causing all of the flounces on her dress to rise and fall like a giant stinging jellyfish. She grabbed my arm. "What were you talking about all this time? Me?"

I turned and looked at her. She was beautiful and completely off-putting – self-centered, immature, always vying for attention. But Bridget Sutherland didn't deserve to die. I had been responsible for enough deaths in my short time as a vampire. I could never put to right the wrongs I'd committed in those early days, but saving this family from Damon's vengeance was my responsibility. I would not have their blood on my conscience.

"Yes. Yes I was," I answered, and then I drained my drink and motioned for the waiter to bring me another.

"Attention please," Damon called out, tapping on his glass with a silver spoon. The master of the dance, Reginald Chester, squinted at Damon curiously. The orchestra, looking confused, put down their instruments. Mrs. Chester first seemed put out that someone else was taking charge of the dance – but when she saw who it was, she began to beam like Damon was her own son.

The murmuring crowd turned to us: young, old, with feathers, with gems, in wide lace shawls and massive silk dresses, like a flock of tropical birds at a zoo awaiting the keeper who would scatter grain for their supper.

They whispered to one another and nodded, trying to claim connection to him:

"I had dinner with him last week."

"He was having drinks with the Knoxes, that's where I met him."

"I recommended my best tailor to him."

It was difficult to tell if the crowd had been charmed by Damon's natural charisma, or if there was powerful compelling at work. But I wondered again how a vampire as young as Damon could command such Power.

"My new friend and I have an announcement to make," Damon called out, assuming his fake Italian accent once more. Lydia quietly slipped to the front of the crowd, coming to stand near Damon.

"Many of you know the story of the night Miss Sutherland and I first met… I, a stranger to your shores, and she, a beautiful damsel in distress…"

The crowd smiled adoringly. Hilda and one of her girlfriends exchanged envious looks.

"And in a shocking coincidence, my friend here, Stefan Salvatore, rescued her sister, the equally beautiful and charming Bridget Sutherland, just last night. I can't speak for him," he said, drawing close to Lydia, his glass still raised, his attention still on the crowd, "but for me, it was love at first sight. I've already spoken to her father, and so before anyone else can grab her away from me, I, Count Damon DeSangue, beg Lydia for the honor of her hand in marriage, though I have nothing to offer her beyond my good name and lifelong devotion."

He got down on one knee and whispered, "Lydia?"

Lydia's face flushed prettily. She was taken off guard. Though she was not the sort of girl who really looked forward to being asked to wed in front of a large crowd, she beamed.

"Of course, Damon, with all my heart!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms around him.

The Sutherland family stood together at the front of the crowd. The look on Margaret's face wasn't so much a scowl as disgusted shock and sheer confusion. I knew how she felt, but wondered at her response. Wasn't she under Damon's compulsion to accept him – and me – completely?

Bridget's reaction was equally human, and far more horrible. Her eyes burned with pure, searing jealousy. Maybe there was a tiny bit of relief that her older sister was getting married, which meant that now in turn she could. But it was obvious that the youngest Sutherland had been dreaming her whole life of exactly how her perfect suitor would propose, and that it involved being done in public, in front of all her friends and an admiring audience.

The admiring crowd clapped and then Damon's eyes flicked back toward me. Just once. Like he had the power to compel me. And in a manner of speaking, he did. I knew exactly what he wanted me to do.

I drained my second champagne before stepping forward, turning toward Bridget.

Here I went again. It seemed only yesterday that I was in Mystic Falls, yearning to go to school in Charlottesville, waiting out the war in the lazy, endless summer, and being forced to court Rosalyn. Each time I called upon her it was with a leaden ball in my stomach, and each visit was an exercise in frustration and despair. I never wanted to marry her – our parents wished us to marry. My father expected us to marry. And so I was forced into an engagement I didn't want, anticipating a marriage I didn't desire.

Once again I was being being forced into a marriage. But perhaps this was all part of the punishment I deserved. And if it meant saving lives…

"Bridget." I turned to her, bent at my waist and holding my drink out, toasting her. I was the very form of romantic etiquette, exuding Southern charm the like of which these Yankees rarely saw. "From the very moment I…" Saw your near-lifeless body covered in blood in Central Park and almost finished you off. "… had the fortune to come to you in the hour of your direst need, I just knew you had to be mine. And thanks to the generosity of your parents, I already feel like family. Bridget, will you make this the happiest night of my life?"

With a porcine squeal Bridget threw her arms around me – after first carefully handing her glass of punch to Hilda.

"Good show," Bram clapped, his cheeks flushing even redder. "I knew you were a decent chap! I could tell right away!"

The crowd exploded with cheers and thunderous applause; buckets of champagne were ordered all around. Winfield Sutherland looked so puffed up with pride and joy I feared he would explode. Mrs. Sutherland looked quietly pleased now that the last of her daughters were matched. Only Margaret shook her head angrily before freezing her face into a good show of sisterly pride.

The leader of the dance had a Nebuchadnezzar of champagne brought forth, a giant glass bottle that held the equivalent of twenty bottles' worth of champagne. In an elegant display of sabrage, he took a sword from his butler and dramatically sliced along the bottle, causing the neck to fly off in a beautiful explosion of sparkling golden liquid.

"Let's have the weddings this weekend!" Damon cried out, as if caught up in the general excitement. "We've waited our whole lives to find these ladies – why wait now?"

Yes, why wait? I thought. Let Damon's games begin.