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The Craving (Chapter 23)

We hailed a carriage heading uptown – Lexi told me I needed to save my strength for whatever came next – and got out without bothering to pay. This was what life was like for one such as Lexi, powerful and simple in her wants and desires. She didn't need any intricate, crazy plans for amassing wealth. She could compel anyone to do anything she asked, and life was incredibly easy.

It was tempting, especially the aspect that was nonviolent. No one was hurt in any of her activities, except financially.

Lexi must have read my thoughts because she grinned at me and waggled her eyebrows. "You should stick with me, my friend. Life like this can be sweet, not a curse," she offered.

I shook my head, smiling. "Thanks, but as you keep saying, I have my own path."

By the time we made it to the Sutherland mansion, its windows were dark and already draped in festoons of black crepe. In the strange half-light of the early hour, dew sparkled eerily off the matte cloth. The house was cordoned off.

I gently forced the lock. Neither Lexi nor I made any noise until we came into the living room, when she gave a gasp.

The coroners had removed the bodies but not done any cleanup work. The vast amounts of blood from their ripped-up bodies had seeped into the carpet and stained the marble floors beneath. Dark black splatters of dried blood covered the walls, matching the crepe outside.

"My god," Lexi whispered. "He massacred them."

I fell back into a chair, overwhelmed with guilt. It hadn't been long since I had discovered the poor family here, their bodies still warm with rapidly fleeting life. Backward and backward my thoughts ran, remembering the things I had done wrong, all of which had led up to this sad climax.

If I hadn't run away from the reception…

If hadn't gone along with my brother's plans to begin with…

If I hadn't saved Bridget…

If I hadn't fled to New York…

If I hadn't made Damon drink blood to complete his transformation…

"This is my fault," I moaned.

I put my head in my hands. The trail of blood and death that wasn't even of my own devising followed me like a curse.

"No, it's Damon's," Lexi corrected promptly. "And Klaus's."

"I should never have come here…. I should have stayed as far away from humans as possible."

"Hey." Lexi walked over to me, kneeling down and looking up into my face. She put a hand on my chin, forcing me to look back at her. "You didn't do this. Klaus did – he ordered this. And you had no intention of marrying into this family. That was Damon's idea. You told me yourself – he threatened to kill that roomful of people if you didn't go along. I would have killed him at that point, but he's not my brother."

I gazed into her dark eyes. "I've done so much wrong."

She bit her lower lip. "You made mistakes in the past. Bad ones. But you know that, and were doing your best to correct them, or at least avoid them in the future. That's why I am here, Stefan. You're worth saving."

A pain that had nothing to do with thirst made my throat ache. "Lexi, please…"

"I can see into your heart, Stefan," she said softly. "I don't just appear out of the blue to save any vampire. You're different. And someday, maybe, you'll know that. And part of your curse will be over."

She leaned forward and pressed her lips against my cheek. I could feel the soft flutter of her eyelashes as she closed her eyes against my face.

"Come on," she said, backing up and chucking me under the chin. "We have work to do. I'll look around down here. You go get whatever things of yours the police haven't confiscated. I think you're moving out of this town for a while."

Between one breath and the next, between a trick of the light and the deepest shadow, she had changed. Sunny, friendly Lexi now had bloodred eyes and black veins around her face. Fangs glistened in what little light there was. She was in full predator mode, hunting for the slightest sign of the vampire. Even though she was just an older version of what I was, seeing her that way still sent a chill down my body. Lurking just beneath our skin, the monster was always ready to come out.

With a heavy heart I plodded up the grand, dark wood staircase. There was no need to be completely silent; the few servants who remained were in their quarters in a distant wing, far away from the death and mess. I could hear their overloud voices, their discussions of prospects and other households – all desperate attempts to fend off the darkness that their employers had slipped into so suddenly.

I wondered what Margaret was doing, vowing to get word to her about Klaus and his vendetta. She was probably in her own home with her husband, mourning her sisters and parents. Which was harder? To be dead, or to live with the memory of the dead? As a vampire, I would never know the former, but always experience the latter.

I soon reached my room, where a night ago Bridget had thrown herself at me. I smelled traces of the violet perfume she had doused herself with. It had infiltrated my pillow and sheets. So much more childish than Katherine's scent, the subtle, alluring, complicated mix of citrus and spice….

I took a valise – another gift from Winfield, planning for our honeymoon, I suppose – and threw the few things I considered mine into it. My old clothes, some spare change, my journal. I flipped to an old page where I'd written about Katherine.

September 8, 1864

She is not who she seems. Should I be surprised? Terrified? Hurt?

It's as if everything I know, everything I've been taught, everything I've believed in my past seventeen years is wrong.

I can still feel where she kissed me, where her fingers grasped my hands. I still yearn for her, and yet the voice of reason is screaming in my ears: you cannot love a vampire!

If I had one of her daisies, I could pluck the leaves and let the flower choose for me. I love her… I love her not… I…

I love her.

I do. No matter the consequences.

Is this what following your heart is? I wish there was a map or a compass to help me find my way. But she has my heart and that above all else is my North Star… and that will have to be enough.

I snapped the book shut, curling my lip at my foolishness. Downstairs was the present reality and thinking about the past did no good. I threw the book into the valise and went downstairs.

But instead of finding Lexi there to greet me, there was emptiness and a horrible, familiar scent.

Death and decay.

A faint breeze whistled through broken wood; the back door was left wide open. I shivered despite myself. The silence, Lexi's absence, howled like a banshee.

A single piece of paper, the size of a ticket, fluttered on the floor. I picked it up, feeling dread prickle my skin.

All it said was: PAYMENT NUMBER TWO  – LUCIUS.

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