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The Craving (Chapter 5)

At the close of breakfast, maids whisked away the Dutch china and jam, and Winfield retreated to his study, leaving me with the Sutherland women in the sunlit parlor. Bridget, Lydia, and Mrs. Sutherland had installed themselves on the brocade couch, while I perched at the edge of a green velvet chaise, pretending to gaze at an oil portrait of the family when in truth I was calculating the best way to make my escape. My last, paltry feeding seemed a distant memory, and the sweet symphony of beating hearts in this grand mansion was becoming difficult to resist.

During the meal, I'd tried several times to free myself from the Sutherlands' presence, with the aim of slipping out a window or escaping through the servants' quarters. But as though my intentions were written plainly across my forehead, I was unable to shake my company for even two minutes. When I'd excused myself to the facility, the butler had insisted upon escorting me. When I mentioned I'd enjoy lying down in my room, Mrs. Sutherland had pointed out that the couch in the parlor was the perfect place for a repose. I knew that they were grateful to me for returning Bridget to them, but I couldn't explain their acceptance of me into their home. Especially given the state I was in when I first entered it: dirty, torn clothes, disheveled, and bloody.

"Mr. Stefan," Margaret said, leaning against the column that separated the parlor from the foyer. "Are you entirely all right?"

"Fine, fine," I said. "Why do you ask?"

"You're shaking your leg so hard you're rattling the chair."

I pressed my hand to my knee to steady my leg. "I usually start my morning with a walk," I lied, pushing myself to standing. "In fact, if I may excuse myself, I think I'll take a stroll around the park."

Margaret raised a perfectly arched brow. "You certainly seem to spend a lot of time in the park."

"I consider it my second home," I said with a wry smile, picturing my cave with its cadre of statues. "I've always found nature comforting."

"What a lovely idea!" Mrs. Sutherland said, clasping her hands together. "Would you mind if we joined you? It's a beautiful day, and we could all use some fresh air."

"Mama, I think it would be best if I rested instead," Bridget said, putting a hand to her very healthy-looking brow.

"You mean, stay in and receive visitors all day so you can tell them about your adventures," Margaret said, shaking her head. "I'm afraid I shall have to beg off, too, Mother. I've things to attend to at home, now that it appears my sister is fine – and my husband misses me."

"I can't imagine why," Bridget muttered uncharitably.

Lydia shot her youngest sister a look and lightly slapped her arm. Mrs. Sutherland ignored the sisterly sniping, shaking out a light cloak and wrapping it around her shoulders. "Come with us, Mr. Salvatore. We shall make a fine party of three."

Resisting the urge to shout in frustration – what would it take to leave this family's clutches? – I forced a smile on my face and held out my arm to Mrs. Sutherland.

The second we stepped outside the massive front door, the sun assaulted my eyes. It was a bright, lemony yellow and the sky a perfect blue. For early November up north, it was a remarkably mild day. If not for the sun's low angle in relation to the earth, it would have been easy to mistake it for a brisk spring morning.

We headed south, then crossed at Sixty-sixth Street and walked through the wrought iron gates of the park. Despite the events of the night before, neither Lydia nor Mrs. Sutherland showed any hesitation or fear. I suppose they felt safe enough in my presence. I took a deep breath of the morning air, which seemed so clear and pure after the events of the previous night. It was as though, with the rising sun, the entire world had been washed clean. Seed heads bobbed at the ends of long grasses and flowers opened toward the sky, taking in the last bright sun of the year. The droplets of dew had already dispersed from the previous night.

We were not the only ones out to enjoy the day. The park was packed with families and strolling couples. I was struck once again with how different the North was. Yankee women wore bright colors, such as we hadn't seen in the South for years – scarlets, brilliant yellows, bold, sky blues in silk and velvet and expensive cloths like European lace, delicate stockings, tiny leather boots.

Even nature here was different. Northern trees were round, quaint, elliptical maples where our lush oaks spread out, soaking up the sun to the farthest tips of their branches. The pines were spiky and blue, not the tall, soft, grand ones the soft Southern breeze whispers around.

Mrs. Sutherland and Lydia prattled on about the weather, but they had lost my attention, for at that moment a squirrel crossed our path. A sudden darkness overcame me, as if one of the few clouds in the sky had momentarily passed in front of the sun. My predator instincts awoke. There was nothing delectable about its beady eyes or bushy tail, but in a flash I could taste it – the blood of yesterday. It invaded my nostrils and tickled my throat with desire.

"Please excuse me – I – I believe I see someone I know." I made my trivial excuse as I dashed off, promising to return in a moment, though I had no intention of doing so. I could feel Lydia and Mrs. Sutherland's eyes follow me curiously as I disappeared behind a thicket of bushes.

There sat my prey, as innocent as Bridget had likely looked to her attacker last night. It eyed me as I approached, but did not make a move. In a flash I was upon it, and it was over even more quickly. As I felt the blood seep into me – a paltry feeding, but a feeding nonetheless – I leaned against the tree trunk, awash in exhausted relief. It had not been apparent until just now how edgy I had been, every moment afraid of my own hunger. Afraid of the stirrings inside of me, and how they might control me at any instant.

My relief was so great that I didn't even hear Lydia approach, ruining my chance of escape.

"Stefan?" she said, looking around, no doubt curious to meet the person I had run off to greet.

"It turns out that I was mistaken after all," I mumbled, reluctantly rejoining Lydia and her mother on the path. They fell back into polite conversation, while I kicked along silently next to them, berating myself for my slowed reflexes. What was wrong with me? I was a vampire. Removing myself from the Sutherlands' presence should have been no hard task, even in my weakened state. An unpleasant thought rattled at the back of my mind, an alternate explanation, that I was still with this family because I wanted to be.

"Mr. Salvatore, you're awfully quiet," Mrs. Sutherland observed. I stole a glance at Lydia, who gave me a smile, clearly acknowledging that her mother did not deal in subtlety.

"Forgive me. It's been a while since I've been in the midst of people," I admitted as we turned on to the bridle path.

Mrs. Sutherland squeezed my hand. If she noticed its icy pallor, she must have taken it for a chill. "Since you lost your father?" she asked gently.

I nodded. That explanation was easier than the truth.

"I lost a brother in the battle with Mexico," Mrs. Sutherland confided, as we passed a little girl and her father walking a long-haired dachshund. "We were the closest of nine brothers and sisters. Despite our numbers, none of my siblings could ever replace him in my heart."

"Uncle Isaiah," Lydia murmured. "I barely remember him. But he was always kind."

"I'm sorry to hear that. I did not mean to turn this outing into a sad affair," I apologized.

"Remembering and mourning needn't always be sad," Mrs. Sutherland pointed out. "It is simply . . . what it is. Keeping their lives present in our own."

Her words cast a true light through all the confusing thoughts that had been clouding my mind of late: how to remain in touch with my human side even as I embraced becoming a vampire, how to not lose my soul. Keeping the past present was paramount. Just as my memory of Callie kept me from attacking Bridget, my connection to my family, to the life that had once been mine, would help me keep my humanity.

Though she didn't resemble my own mother at all, for one instant, with the sunlight shining down through her cap and illuminating her graying hair, her sharp blue eyes softened with feeling, I suddenly felt she could be my mother. That, were the circumstances different, I could be happy in her home.

Oh, how I missed my mother. While my deep grief for her had abated in the years since she had died, there was a dull ache that was never absent from my heart. How much of the tragedy that engulfed our lives could have been avoided if she were still alive?

I missed my father, too. Up until the moment I killed him, I respected and loved him. I had wanted to follow in his footsteps, to take on the family estate, to please him as much as possible. My deepest wish had been that he could respect and love me back.

I even missed my brother, or rather who he used to be. Though he vowed to get revenge on me for turning him into a vampire, in life he had been my truest companion in the world, my playful competitor and my closest confidant. I wondered where Damon was right now, and what harm he might be doing. I couldn't judge his bad behavior – I'd had my share of bloodlust after I had turned. I only hoped his humanity would return to him as mine had.

"You are a wise woman, Mrs. Sutherland," I said, returning the squeeze of her hand. She smiled at me.

"You're a remarkable young man," Mrs. Sutherland noted. "If I was your mother, I should be very proud of you. Of course, I have no sons, and only one son-in-law. . . ." She sniffed.

"But, Mother, Margaret and I are each very accomplished, in our own way," Lydia said, ignoring the pointed remark about son-in-laws. "She does the books for Wally. And I am helping to form that charity for mothers who lack a stable income."

Mrs. Sutherland cast a private smile at me, and in that moment I dared to hope. Perhaps it was possible to stay here, to become part of this family. It would be a dangerous game, but perhaps I could master it. I could keep my hunger under control and take daily walks with Lydia and Mrs. Sutherland, accompanying them home for a cup of tea or a lively debate about the war with Winfield.

Lydia continued on, making her case for her own independence, her mother sighing despite her apparent pride. The sun grew warmer as we made our way west, choosing paths at random until we came upon a familiar foot trail in the middle of the park that led straight to Seneca Village. My home.

Perhaps it was my sudden distraction that caused Mrs. Sutherland to look at me so closely. "Mr. Salvatore," she said, half-concerned, half-afraid. "You have a . . . spot . . . upon your collar."

Despite the laws of decorum, Lydia reached for it then, brushing a finger gently near my neck. I shuddered in excitement and fear at her closeness. When she withdrew her pointer finger, it wore a speck of blood.

I grew ashen. For this was the fact of my life. Despite the pains I took to control myself, the exhaustive efforts at constant secrecy, one speck of blood was all it took to upset the balance. They would see me for who I was: a liar, a murderer, a monster.

The tinkling of Lydia's laughter broke the silence. "Just a bit of jam," she said lightly, wiping her finger on the low-hanging branch of a passing tree. "Mr. Salvatore," she teased, "I know we have made you feel very much at home, but while you are our guest, perhaps you should be more careful with your table manners."

Mrs. Sutherland began to chide her daughter, but seeing the happy relief upon my own face, she smiled as well. Soon we were all laughing gaily at Stefan Salvatore, the nighttime-hero-turned-careless-houseguest, as we made our way back into the sunlight.

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