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The Craving (Chapter 12)

The next few days drifted by, chock-full of wedding planning and menu sampling. At night, the Sutherlands settled into a steady routine. Mrs. Sutherland took to the sewing room, teaching Lydia to make quilts and bonnets. Bridget indulged in a late-night beauty regime that involved brushing her hair in one hundred strokes and lathering herself in cream that I could smell all the way from the parlor. Winfield always retired to his study with a tumbler of brandy, perusing the paper or going over his accounting books.

I'd taken to pacing the first floor, coming up with plans to ferry the Sutherlands to safety only to shoot down most of my ideas. I also now needed to plan my feedings. My steady diet of city animals was harder to keep up now that I was under the watchful eye of every Sutherland and servant. It was almost like they expected me to try and make a break for it, though it was impossible to know how much of that was genuine wariness versus Damon compelling them to follow me. Sometimes I managed to slip away, whether up to the roof or silently down to the backyard to try and find a rat or pigeon or even a mouse to satisfy my needs. Hazel, the house cat, was off limits of course, but fortunately her wild tomcat friends were not.

Damon had no such nutritional problems. Nor did he care much about secrecy. He came and went as he pleased, doing God knows what in the darkest corners of the city. I often saw a maid or manservant summoned to his suite in the coldest hours of the night as I skulked about tending to my own needs. For my brother, life with the Sutherlands was like living in a grand hotel – he attended dinners in his honor and was feted all around town at the top establishments. He was a prince and New York was his adoring kingdom.

When Damon arrived home on Thursday, Winfield poked his head out of the study.

"Oh, good. I'm glad you're here," Winfield said, holding out two glasses of whiskey. "Please come join me."

There was a stray drop of blood carelessly smeared on the corner of Damon's mouth. Anyone else would have assumed it was a shaving cut. Suddenly the cozy study seemed suffocating and the corners darker.

Damon casually wiped his lips, his eyes on me, then threw himself down on the couch next to his future father-in-law, less like an Italian count and more like… well, Damon. "Good evening, sir." The fact that he dropped his fake accent in their presence highlighted just how under his thrall this family was.

"I wanted to have a chat with the two of you about your futures," Winfield began, chomping on his cigar.

"Oh, I have big plans, I'm thinking long-term," Damon said. "Living here with the family, of course. I love close kin."

My throat went dry and I ran a hand through my hair, beginning to panic, reminded once again that I had no idea what Damon really wanted.

"I think I should like to go into business for myself," Damon began to say. But then the door of the study slammed open and Margaret came striding in.

"Papa!"

Without a word to either of us she threw a copy of the day's Post down into her father's hands and tapped at an article. "Read this."

Winfield fished around in his pockets for his glasses and slid them on, peering at the paper.

"Sutherland house is scandalized as two penniless suitors sweep away the last of the eligible Sutherland girls. Heartbroken sons of bankers, politicians, and empires of capital complain bitterly about the sudden move. Is it blackmail, some wonder? An unnamed source close to the family claims that… Oh, rubbish," he said, throwing the paper aside and taking off his glasses. "People talk about the silliest things."

"We will be ruined," Margaret said, almost pleading. She completely ignored Damon's and my presence. "At the very least, can't you see how it would be bad for business?"

"Don't you think you should leave that sort of talk for the menfolk?" Damon asked lazily, returning to his accented English. But his ice-blue eyes bored straight into her head, as if he wished he could put a bullet there. I stood up, placing myself between Margaret and him. She didn't seem to notice his hatred, or the danger she was in.

"I understand your concerns," I said quickly. I had to convince her to drop this, for her own sake. "But believe me, I want nothing but the best for your family."

"And in fact, we menfolk were just talking about business," Winfield added. "Damon, you were saying?"

"All I need is a small sum of cash," my brother said, turning his head and effectively cutting Margaret out of the conversation. "Which will allow me to travel to my home country and start picking out vendors for exports…."

Margaret let out a gasp. "You're not actually thinking of giving him more than his dowry?"

"Don't be greedy, pet," Winfield said, shushing her with a patronizing gesture. "It's just seed money to get him on his way…."

"Have you gone crazy?" she demanded. "You don't even know this man. Let him work for you first. Or give him one of your smaller businesses to run."

Damon rose from his seat, coldly furious. I tried to take Margaret's arm, but she shook me off. She pulled herself up to her full height, staring straight back into his eyes. Though she wasn't quite as pretty as either of her younger sisters, she was certainly imposing.

"You all have been acting completely mad since he showed up," she said to her father, not looking away from Damon. "Letting him – and him" – she gestured at me – "become practically members of this family, live under our roof, share our bread, and then offer them cash and your daughters and everything else! Doesn't anyone think this is strange besides me?"

Winfield looked upset, but confused.

Damon widened his eyes.

"Stop," he compelled her. "Just accept Stefan and me – we're here to stay."

She looked at him for a long moment. I waited for her eyes to glaze over, for her pupils to dilate ever so slightly. But all she did was shake her head in disgust. "Your phony 'count' act might work with other people, but not me. I want no part of this."

I stared at her, stunned, as she stormed out. I'd never seen Damon fail to compel someone, not even when he'd been young and weak. I inhaled deeply, searching for hints of vervain, anything to explain what had just happened. But there was nothing there.

All I could do was hope that whatever it was, it would continue to keep Margaret safe.

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