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Origins (Chapter 20)

I didn't see Damon for the next few days. Father said he was spending time at the camp, an idea that clearly filled him with no small amount of pleasure. Father hoped that Damon spending time there would lead to him rejoining the army, even though I figured his hours would be spent mostly gambling and talking about women. I, for one, was glad. Of course, I missed my brother, but I would never be able to spend so much uninterrupted, unquestioned time with Katherine if Damon was around.

Truthfully, although I felt disloyal to say it, Father and I adapted well to Damon being gone. We began taking meals together, companionably playing hands of cribbage after dinner. Father would share his thoughts about the day, about the overseer, and about his plans to buy new horses from a farm in Kentucky. For the hundredth time, I realized how much he wanted me to take over the estate, and for the first time, I felt excitement in that possibility.

It was because of Katherine. I'd taken to spending each night in her chambers, leaving just before work began in the fields. She hadn't bared her fangs since that night in the woods. It was as if that secret meeting in the forest had changed everything. She needed me to keep her secret, and I needed her to keep me whole. In her small, dim bedroom, everything was passionate and perfect–it almost felt as if we were newlyweds.

Of course, I wondered how it would work, me growing older each year as Katherine stayed just as young and beautiful. But that was a question for later, after the fear of the vampire scourge was over, after we were engaged, after we'd settled into a life without hiding.

"I know you've been spending time with young Katherine," Father said one night at the dinner table, as Alfred cleared the table and brought Father his well-worn deck of cards for us to play.

"Y es." I watched as Alfred poured sherry into Father's glass. In the flickering candlelight, the normally pink liquid looked like blood. He held the decanter to me, but I shook my head.

"So has young Damon," Father observed, taking the card deck in his thick fingers and slowly palming it from hand to hand.

I sighed, annoyed that Damon had once again come into a conversation about Katherine. "She needs a friend. Friends," I said.

"That she does. And I'm glad that you've been able to provide her with companionship," Father said. He placed the cards facedown on the table and glanced at me.

"Y know, I don't know very much about her

ou Atlanta relations. I'd heard of her through one of my shipping partners. Very sad, a girl orphaned by my shipping partners. Very sad, a girl orphaned by Sherman's battle, but there aren't very many other Pierces that say they know of her."

I shifted nervously. "Pierce is a common enough name. And maybe she doesn't want to be affiliated with some of her relations." I took a deep breath. "I'm sure there are other Salvatores out there that we haven't heard of."

"There's a good point," Father said, taking a sip of his sherry. "Salvatore isn't a common name, but it's a good one. Which is why I hope you and Damon know what you're getting into."

I looked up sharply.

"Fighting over the same girl," Father said simply. "I wouldn't want you to lose your relationship. I know I don't always see eye to eye with your brother, but he's your flesh and blood."

I cringed, the familiar phrase suddenly complicated. But if Father noticed, he didn't say anything. He picked up the deck and glanced at me expectantly. "Shall we play?" he asked, already beginning to deal six cards to me.

I picked up my stack, but instead of looking at the cards, I glanced out of the corner of my eye, to see if I could spot any movement from the carriage house through the window.

Alfred walked into the room. "Sir, you have a guest."

"A guest?" Father asked curiously, half standing up from the table. We rarely had guests come to the estate unless there was a party. Father always preferred meeting acquaintances in town or at the tavern.

"Please forgive my intrusion." Katherine walked in, her thin arms filled with a bouquet of flowers of all different shapes and sizes–roses and hydrangeas and lilies of the valley. "Emily and I were picking the flowers by the pond, and I thought you might appreciate some color." Katherine offered a small grin as Father stiffly held out his hand for her to shake. He'd barely had a four-word conversation with Katherine since she'd arrived. I held my breath, as anxious as I would be if I were introducing Father to my betrothed.

"Thank you, Miss Pierce," Father said. "And our house is your house. Please don't feel you need to ask permission to come visit. We'd love to have you, whenever you wish to spend time with us."

"Thank you. I wouldn't want to be an imposition," she said, batting her eyelashes in a way that was irresistible for any man.

"Please, have a seat," Father said, settling down at the head of the table. "My son and I were just preparing to play a hand of cards, but we can certainly put them away."

Katherine eyed our game. "Cribbage! My father and I always used to play. May I join you?" She flashed a smile as she settled into my chair and picked up my hand. Instantly, she frowned and began rearranging the cards.

How could she, when worried for her very existence, be so carefree and enchanting?

"Why, of course, Miss Pierce. If you'd like to play, I'd be honored, and I'm sure my son would be happy to help you."

"Oh, I know how to play." She set a card in the center of the table.

"Good," Father said, putting his own card on top of hers. "And, you know, I do worry about you and your maid, all alone in the carriage house. If you want to move to the main house, please, just let me know and your wish is my command. I thought that you would like some privacy, but with things as they are and all the danger …" Father trailed off.

Katherine shook her head, a shadow of a frown crossing her face. "I'm not frightened. I lived through a lot in Atlanta," she said, placing an ace on the table faceup. "Besides, the servants' quarters are so close, they would hear me if I screamed."

As Father placed a seven of spades on the table, Katherine touched my knee, slowly brushing it with a feathery stroke. I flushed at the intimate contact when my father was so close, but I didn't want her to stop.

Katherine placed a five of diamonds on the card pile. "Thirteen. I think I may be on a lucky streak, Mr. Salvatore," she said, moving her peg one spot on the cribbage board.

Father broke into a delighted grin. "Y ou're quite a girl. Stefan's never really understood the rules of this game."

The door slammed, and Damon walked into the room, his rucksack over his shoulder. He shrugged it off onto the floor, and Alfred picked it up. Damon didn't seem to notice. "Looks like I'm missing all the fun," Damon said, his tone accusatory as his gaze flicked from Father back to me.

"Y are," Father said simply. Then he actually

ou glanced up and smiled at him. "Y oung Katherine here is proving that she's not only beautiful but that she has brains, too. An intoxicatingly infuriating combination," Father said, noticing that Katherine had racked up an additional point on the board when he wasn't looking.

"Thank you," Katherine said, deftly discarding and picking up a new card. "Y ou're making me blush. Although I do admit that I think your compliments are just an elaborate plan for distracting me so you can win," Katherine said, barely bothering to acknowledge Damon.

I strode over to Damon. We stood together in the doorway, watching Katherine and Father.

Damon crossed his arms over his chest. "What is she doing here?"

"Playing cards." I shrugged. "Do you really think that's wise?" Damon lowered his voice. "Given his opinions on her … provenance."

"But don't you see? It's brilliant. She's charming him. I haven't heard him laugh so hard since Mother died." I felt suddenly delirious with happiness. This was better than anything I could have planned. Instead of trying to come up with an elaborate plot to push Father off the vampire trail, Father would simply see that Katherine was human. That she still had emotions and wouldn't do any harm save for ruining his winning streak at cribbage.

"So what?" Damon asked. "He's a madman on the hunt. A few smiles won't change that."

Katherine erupted into giggles as Father put down a card. I lowered my voice. "I think if we let him know about her, he'd change his mind. He'd realize that she doesn't mean any harm."

"Are you crazy?" Damon hissed, clenching my arm. His breath smelled like whiskey. "If Father knew about Katherine, he'd kill her in an instant! How do you know he's not already planning something?"

Just then Katherine let out a peal of laughter. Father threw his head back, adding his hoarse laugh to hers. Damon and I fell silent as she glanced up from her cards. She found us with her eyes and winked. But since Damon and I were standing side by side, it was impossible to tell who it was meant for.

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