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Origins (Chapter 22)

The week of the Founders Ball came with a cold spell that settled into Mystic Falls and refused to leave. Ladies walked around town in midafternoon in wool coats and shawls, and the evenings were cloudy and starless. Out in the field, workers fretted about an early frost. Still, that didn't stop people from as far away as Atlanta coming into town for the ball. The boarding-house was full, and the entire town had a carnival-like air in the days leading up to the event.

Damon was back at Veritas, his mysterious tenure with the brigade over. I hadn't told him that Katherine and I were attending the Founders Ball, and he hadn't asked. Instead, I'd busied myself with work, feeling renewed vigor about taking over Veritas. I wanted to prove to Father that I was serious about the estate and about growing up and assuming my place in the world. He'd been giving me more responsibility, allowing me to look over the ledgers and even encouraging me to go to Richmond with Robert to attend a livestock auction. I could see my life, ten years from now. I'd run Veritas, and Katherine would run the inside of the home, hosting parties and playing the occasional card game at night with Father.

The night of the ball, Alfred knocked on my door. "Sir? Do you require any assistance?" he asked as I swung the door open.

I glanced at my reflection in the mirror. I was dressed in a black long-tailed coat and tie, with my hair slicked back. I looked older, more confident.

Alfred followed my gaze. "Looking smart, sir," he allowed.

"Thank you. I'm ready," I said, my heart fluttering in excitement. Last night, Katherine had teased me mercilessly, not giving me any clues as to what she was going to wear. I couldn't wait to see her. I knew she'd be the most beautiful girl at the ball. More important, she was mine.

I headed down the stairs, relieved that Damon was nowhere to be found. I wondered whether he was attending the Founders Ball with some of his army friends or perhaps one of the town's girls. He'd been distant lately, impossible to find in the morning and at the tavern at night.

Outside, the horses were pawing at the drive. I entered the waiting coach, which clip-clopped its way to the carriage house.

I glanced out the window, and noticed Katherine and Emily standing at the front door. Emily wore a simple black silk dress, but Katherine …

I had to press my back into the carriage seat to keep from jumping out of the moving coach. Her dress was emerald green, nipping in at the waist dress was emerald green, nipping in at the waist before flowing over her hips. The bodice was low and tight and showed off her creamy white skin, and her hair was pulled back on the top of her head, exposing her graceful, swan-like neck.

The second Alfred pulled back on the horses' reins, I opened the door of the coach and hopped out, smiling broadly as Katherine's eyes caught mine.

"Stefan!" Katherine breathed, lifting her skirts slightly as she glided down the stairs.

"Katherine." I gently kissed her cheek before I offered my arm to her. Together, we turned and walked toward the carriage, where Alfred stood with the door open.

The road to Mystic Falls was filled with unfamiliar coaches of all shapes and sizes, leading to the Lockwood mansion on the far end of town. I felt a thrill of anticipation. This was the first time I'd ever escorted a girl to the Founders Ball. In all previous years, I'd spent most of the evenings playing poker with my friends. Invariably some sort of disaster happened. Last year, Matthew Hartnett had gotten drunk on whiskey and had accidentally unhitched the horses from his parents' coach, and two years ago, Nathan Layman had gotten into a fistfight with Grant Vanderbilt, and both ended up with broken noses.

We slowly made our way up to the mansion, finally reaching the front walk. Alfred stopped the horses and let us out. I laced my fingers with Katherine's, and together we walked through the open doors of the mansion and headed toward the dining room.

The high-ceilinged room had been cleared of all furniture, and the candlelight lent a warm, mysterious glow to the walls. A band in the corner played Irish reels, and couples were already beginning to dance, even though the night was young. I squeezed Katherine's hand, and she smiled up at me.

"Stefan!" I whirled around and saw Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright. I dropped Katherine's hand immediately.

Mrs. Cartwright's eyes were red, and she was positively gaunt compared to the last time I saw her. Meanwhile, Mr. Cartwright seemed to have aged ten years. His hair was snow-white, and he was walking with the aid of a cane. Both wore purple sprigs of vervain–a tuft stuck out of Mr. Cartwright's breast pocket, and the flowers were woven into Mrs. Cartwright's hat–but other than that, they were clad entirely in black, for mourning.

"Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright," I said, my stomach clenching with guilt. In truth, I'd nearly forgotten that Rosalyn and I had been engaged. "It's good to see you."

"Y could have seen us sooner if you'd come

ou to call on us," Mr. Cartwright said. He could barely hide the contempt in his voice when his gaze landed on Katherine. "But I understand you must have been in deep … grief as well."

"I will come now that I know you're taking visitors," I said lamely, tugging at my collar, which suddenly felt quite tight around my neck.

"No need," Mrs. Cartwright said icily as she reached into her sleeve to pull out a handkerchief.

Katherine clasped Mrs. Cartwright's hand. Mrs. Cartwright looked down, an expression of shock on her face. A wave of apprehension ran through me, and I fought the urge to step between them and shield Katherine from their anger.

But then Katherine smiled, and amazingly, both Cartwrights smiled back. "Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright, I am so sorry for your loss," she said warmly, holding their gazes. "I lost my parents during the Atlanta siege, and I know how hard it is. I didn't know Rosalyn well, but I do know she will never be forgotten."

Mrs. Cartwright blew her nose noisily, her eyes watering. "Thank you, dear," she said reverentially.

Mr. Cartwright patted his wife on the back. "Y thank you." He turned to me, compassion

es, replacing the scorn that had occupied his eyes just moments earlier. "And please take care of Stefan. I know he's suffering."

Katherine smiled as the couple rejoined the crowd.

I gaped in amazement. "Did you compel them? " I asked, the word tasting bitter in my mouth.

"No!" Katherine placed her hand over her heart. "That was good, old-fashioned kindness. Now, let's dance," she said, tugging me toward the large ballroom. Luckily, the dance floor was a crush of bodies and the lighting was low, so it was almost impossible to make out specific people. Flower garlands hung from the ceiling, and the marble floor was waxed to a sheen. The air was hot and cloying, with the scent of hundreds of competing perfumes.

I put my hand on Katherine's shoulders and tried to relax into the waltz. But I still felt jumpy. The conversation with the Cartwrights had stirred my conscience, making me feel vaguely disloyal to Rosalyn's memory, and to Damon. Had I betrayed him somehow by not telling him that Katherine and I were at the ball together? Was it wrong that I'd been grateful for his prolonged absences?

The band stopped, and as women adjusted their dresses and grasped their partners' hands again, I headed toward the refreshment table in the corner.

"Are you all right, Stefan?" Katherine asked, gliding up beside me, worry lines creasing her lovely forehead.

I nodded, but I didn't break my stride. "Just thirsty," I lied.

"Me too." Katherine stood expectantly as I ladled the dark-red punch into a crystal tumbler. I passed the glass to her and watched as she drank deeply, wondering if that was what she looked like when she drank blood. When she placed the glass on the table, she had the slightest trace of red liquid around her mouth. I couldn't help it. With my index finger I wiped the drop off the side of her bow-shaped mouth. Then I put my finger in my own mouth. It tasted sweet and tangy.

"Are you sure you're all right?" Katherine asked.

"I'm worried about Damon," I confessed as I poured myself a glass of punch.

"But why?" Katherine asked, genuine confusion registering on her face.

"Because of you," I said simply.

Katherine took the tumbler from me and led me away from the refreshment table. "He's like a brother to me," she said, touching my brow with her icy fingers. "I'm like his little sister. Y know

ou this."

"But all those times when I was sick? When you and he were together? It seemed like …"

"It seemed like I needed a friend," Katherine said firmly. "Damon's a flirt. He doesn't want to be tied down, nor would I want to be tied to him. Y ou are my love, and Damon is my brother."

All around us, couples swirled in the semi- darkness, dipping in time to the music and laughing gaily at private jokes, seemingly without a care in the world. They, too, had to worry about attacks and the war and heartbreak, but they still laughed and danced. Why couldn't I as well? Why did I always have to doubt myself? I glanced at Katherine. A dark curl had come loose from her updo. I tucked it behind her ear, relishing the silky feel of the strands between my fingers. Longing coursed through me, and as I stared into her deep brown eyes, all feelings of guilt and unease vanished.

"Shall we dance?" asked Katherine, taking my hand and pressing it to her cheek.

Through the crowded dance floor, I spotted Father, Mr. Cartwright, and the rest of the Founders whispering furiously in a far corner.

"No," I whispered huskily. "Let's go home."

I grabbed Katherine's shoulder, and we whirled around the dance floor until we reached the kitchen, where servants were busily preparing refreshments. Hand in hand, we tore through the kitchen–much to the confusion of the servants –and exited at the back of the house.

We sprinted into the night, oblivious to the cold air, the shrieks of laughter from the mansion, and the fact that we'd just run out on the social event of the season.

The coach was tied near the Lockwoods' stable. Alfred was no doubt playing craps with the other servants. "After you, my lady," I said, lifting Katherine by the waist and placing her in the passenger seat. I hoisted myself up to the driver's seat and cracked the whip, which immediately caused the horses to start clip-clopping in the direction of home.

I grinned at Katherine. We had an entire evening of freedom in front of us, and it was intoxicating. No having to sneak into the carriage house. No skirting the servants. Just hours of uninterrupted bliss.

"I love you!" I yelled, but the wind stole the words as soon as they left my mouth. I imagined them traveling with the breeze, floating through the entire world until every person in every town knew of my love.

Katherine stood up in the coach, her curls whipping wildly around her face. "I love you, too!" she shouted, and then collapsed into giggles on the seat.

By the time we got back to the carriage house, we were both sweaty and red-cheeked. The second we reached Katherine's chambers, I pulled the dress off her slim frame and, seized by my passion, gently ran my teeth against her neck.

"What are you doing?" She stepped back and stared at me sharply.

"I'm just …" What was I doing? Playacting? Trying to seem as if Katherine and I were the same? "I guess I wanted to know how you feel when you …"

Katherine bit her lip. "Maybe someday you'll find out, my innocent, sweet Stefan." She lay back on the bed, arranging her hair on the snow-white goose-down pillow. "But right now, all I want is you. "

I lay down next to her, tracing the curve of her chin with my index finger as I put my lips to hers. The kiss was so soft and tender that I felt her essence and mine combine, creating a force that was larger than ourselves. We explored each other's bodies as if for the first time. In the dim light of her chambers, I was never sure where reality ended and my dreams began. There was no shame, no expectation, just passion and desire, and a sense of danger that was mysterious and beautiful and consuming.

That night, I would have allowed Katherine to consume me entirely and claim me for her own. I would have gladly offered up my neck if it meant that we could have stayed locked in that embrace for all of eternity.

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