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Origins (Chapter 4)

I didn't call on the Cartwrights that day. Instead, after searching the path, I sprinted the two miles back to the estate, terrified that Katherine had somehow been dragged into the forest by some unseen hand–perhaps by the very creature that had been terrorizing the nearby plantations.

When I arrived home, though, I found her on the porch swing, chatting with her maid, a sweating glass of lemonade beside her. Her skin was pale, her eyes languorous, as if she'd never run a day in her life. How had she gotten back to the carriage house so quickly? I wanted to stride up and ask, but I stopped myself. I'd sound like a madman, recounting the whirling thoughts in my head.

At that moment, Katherine glanced up and shielded her eyes. "Back so soon?" she called, as if surprised to see me. I nodded dumbly as she slid off the porch swing and glided into the carriage house.

The image of her smiling face kept floating back to me the next day, when I forced myself to make the call on Rosalyn. It was even worse than the first call. Mrs. Cartwright sat right beside me on the couch, and every time I shifted, her eyes gleamed, as if she was expecting me to take out the ring at any second. I'd choked out some questions about Penny, about the puppies she'd had last June, and about the progress Honoria Fells, the town dressmaker, had made on Rosalyn's pink gown. But no matter how much I tried, all I wanted was an excuse to leave so I could visit with Katherine.

Finally, I muttered something about not wanting to be out past dark. According to Robert, there had been three more animal killings, including George Brower's horse right outside the apothecary. I almost felt guilty as Mrs. Cartwright ushered me out of the house and into my carriage, as if I were going off to battle rather than a two- mile ride home.

When I got to the estate, my heart fell when I saw no sign of Katherine. I was about to double back to the stable to brush Mezzanotte when I heard angry voices emanating from the open windows of the kitchen of the main house.

"No son of mine will ever disobey me! Y ou need to go back and take your place in the world." It was Father's voice, tinged with the heavy Italian accent that became apparent only when he was extremely upset.

"My place is here. The army is not for me. What is so wrong about following my own mind?" another voice yelled, confident, proud, and angry all at once.

Damon.

My heart quickened as I stepped into the kitchen and saw my brother. Damon was my closest friend, the person I looked up to most in the world–even more than Father, though I'd never admitted it out loud. I hadn't seen him since last year, when he joined General Groom's army. He looked taller, his hair somehow seemed darker, and the skin on his neck was sun- darkened and freckled.

I threw my arms around him, thankful I had arrived home when I did. He and Father had never gotten along, and their fights occasionally escalated to blows.

"Brother!" He slapped my back as he pulled out of the embrace.

"We're not finished, Damon," my father warned as he retreated to his study.

Damon turned to me. "I see Father's the same as always."

"He's not so bad." I always felt awkward speaking badly of Father, even as I chafed against my forced engagement to Rosalyn. "Did you just get back?" I asked, changing the subject. Damon smiled. There were slight lines around his eyes that no one would notice unless they knew him well.

"An hour ago. I couldn't miss my younger brother's engagement announcement, could I?" he asked, a slight hint of sarcasm in his voice. "Father told me all about it. Seems that he's depending on you to carry on the Salvatore name. And just think, by the time of the Founders Ball, you'll be a husband!"

I stiffened. I'd forgotten about the ball. It was the event of the year, and Father, Sheriff Forbes, and Mayor Lockwood had been planning it for months. Partly a war benefit, partly an opportunity for the town to enjoy the last gasp of summer, and mostly a chance for the town leaders to pat themselves on the backs, the Founders Ball had always been one of my favorite Mystic Falls traditions. Now I dreaded it.

Damon must have sensed my discomfort, because he started digging through his canvas rucksack. It was filthy and had what looked like a bloodstain on the corner. Finally, he pulled out a large, misshapen leather ball, much larger and more oblong than a baseball. "Want to play?" he asked, palming the ball from hand to hand.

"What is that?" I asked.

"A football. Me and the boys play when we've got time away from the field. It'll be good for you. Get some color in your cheeks. We don't want you getting soft," he said, imitating my father's voice so perfectly that I had to laugh.

Damon walked out the door, and I followed, shrugging off my linen jacket. Suddenly the sunshine felt warmer, the grass felt softer, everything felt better than it had just minutes before. "Catch!" Damon yelled, finding me off guard. I lifted up my arms and caught the ball against my chest.

"Can I play?" a female voice asked, breaking the moment.

Katherine. She was wearing a simple, lilac summer shift dress, and her hair was pulled into a bun at the base of her neck. I noticed that her dark eyes perfectly complemented the brilliant blue cameo necklace that rested in the hollow of her throat. I imagined lacing my fingers through her delicate hands, then kissing her white neck.

I forced myself to tear my gaze away from her. "Katherine, this is my brother, Damon. Damon, this is Katherine Pierce. She is staying with us," I said stiffly, glancing back and forth between them to gauge Damon's reaction. Katherine's eyes danced, as if she found my formality incredibly amusing. So did Damon's.

"Damon, I can tell you're just as sweet as your brother," she said in an exaggerated Southern accent. Even though it was a phrase any of the girls in the county would use when talking to a man, it sounded vaguely mocking coming from her lips.

"We'll see about that." Damon smiled. "So, brother, shall we let Katherine play?"

"I don't know," I said, suddenly hesitant. "What are the rules?"

"Who needs rules?" Katherine asked, flashing "Who needs rules?" Katherine asked, flashing a grin that revealed her perfectly straight, white teeth.

I turned the ball in my hand. "My brother plays rough," I warned.

"Somehow I think I play rougher." In one swoop, Katherine grabbed the ball from my grasp. As they had been the previous day, her hands were cold, like ice, despite the heat of the afternoon. Her touch sent a jolt of energy through my body and up to my brain. "Loser has to groom my horses!" she called as the wind whipped her hair behind her.

Damon watched her run, then arched an eyebrow toward me. "That is a girl who wants to be chased." With that, Damon dug his heels into the earth and ran, his powerful body hurtling down the hill toward the pond.

After a second, I ran, too. I felt the wind whip around my ears. "I'll get you!" I yelled. It was a phrase I'd have yelled when I was eight and playing games with the girls my age, but I felt that the stakes of this game were higher than anything I'd ever played in my life.

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