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The Craving (Chapter 8)

I found Damon dancing with Hilda, ushering her around the dance floor with the lightest touch. Wherever his fingers touched she bent, curling into him a trifle more than was acceptable and falling against him more than was necessary. Other girls looked on enviously, clearly hoping to dance with him next. He pretended to devote all his attention to the poor girl, but glanced up just long enough to shoot me a dazzling smile.

I waited impatiently for the dance to end, wishing I could compel the musicians to stop. But whatever Damon's powers of compulsion, mine were severely lacking thanks to my meager diet.

As soon as the last beat was played, I marched up to my brother.

"Oh, I'm sorry, did you want to… ?" he asked, innocently, indicating Hilda. "Because I'm sure she will. If you'd like her to."

Hilda studied her dance card, the picture of confusion.

"Let's go get a drink," I said, taking him by the elbow.

"Exactly what I was thinking," he agreed, mock-seriously. He snapped his fingers, as if at a dog. "Hilda… ?"

"Leave her alone," I ordered.

Damon rolled his eyes. "Fine. A waiter will do just as well." But he allowed me to place an iron grip on his arm and guide him through the crowd, past the refreshment room, through a library and into a poorly lit study.

"What the hell are you doing here?" I demanded the moment we were alone.

"Trying to enjoy myself," Damon said, throwing his hands up in mock exasperation. He dropped his accent immediately. "Did you see the spread? The salmon's from Scotland. And Adelina Patti is here, too – Father would have just died. Oh wait." He snapped his fingers. "He did die. You murdered him, in fact."

"Only after he tried to kill us," I pointed out, clenching my fists.

"Correction: after he succeeded in shooting both of us. We're dead, brother." Damon grinned at me.

He was circling me. Casually, as if he didn't mean to, as if he was just walking around idly, making conversation while admiring the decor. It reminded me of how he'd paced the ring at the circus back in New Orleans, when Gallagher had forced him to fight the mountain lion. Damon picked up a small statuette and turned it over in his hands, but his eyes stayed locked on mine. I squared my shoulders, feeling the predator's response as he challenged my personal space.

"I'm asking you again, Damon: What are you doing here?"

"Same thing as you, brother. Starting a new life, far from home, and war, and tragedy, and all of those other things immigrants like us are escaping. New York is where the action is. I figured if it's good enough for my brother, it's good enough for me, too."

"So you did follow me," I said. "How?"

"You stink," Damon said. "Don't act surprised! It's not just you. Everyone stinks. We're hunters, Stefan. About halfway up the coast, it wasn't hard to figure out where you decided to go after New Orleans. I just made sure I got here first. There isn't a train yet that can beat me on a horse. Well, several horses. A couple of them died of exhaustion. Like your poor, poor Mezzanotte."

"Why, Damon?" I said, ignoring his casual cruelty. "Why follow me here?"

Damon's eyes narrowed and a flash of rage shot through them, exploding from the hidden depths of his soul.

"I told you I was going to torment you for the eternity you blessed me with, Stefan. Did you think I would break my promise so quickly?"

I was used to Damon's fits of pique. His anger had always been like a summer storm, quick and violent, causing damage to anyone or anything nearby – and then it was over and he was buying a round at the tavern.

But this fury was new, and it was all because of me.

I averted my eyes so he couldn't see the pain and guilt written there. "What do you want with Lydia? What does she have to do with anything?"

"Ah, Lydia," Damon sighed, infusing his voice with pretend longing. "Charming, isn't she? Definitely the best catch of the three sisters. Not that Margaret doesn't have her own charms, of course, but she's a bit sarcastic for my tastes, and, well, married." He shook his head. "But then there's Bridget. Such a lively girl! Such verve!"

"… anyone seen Stefan?" As if on cue, we could both pick out her whining, childish soprano from four rooms away.

"… and such an irritating voice," Damon finished, wincing. "First thing I would do, brother, is compel her to silence. You'd be doing the world a favor."

I clenched my jaw. "You were obviously involved with the Sutherlands long before we crossed paths here."

"Oh was I?" Damon asked. He put down the small statue he had been holding and turned it this way and that on the desk, as if deciding which way it looked best. "Poor girl was getting soaked – did she tell you the story? She loves it. For all of her pretending to be hard-nosed, she's a weak-kneed romantic as bad as the rest of them. A sudden storm out of nowhere, a dry cab for Lydia… rich, rich Lydia… with a sheltered upbringing and open, welcoming family."

"Oh, you are a master of subtlety. Controlling men's fates," I said, rolling my eyes at Damon's preening.

"I am a master. Who do you think left Bridget for you to find?" he demanded. He stuck his face toward my own so that our noses almost touched. "Who do you think wounded her – just enough – for poor, old, predictable Stefan to find? Stefan, who's sworn off drinking from humans, who I just knew would rescue the damsel in distress rather than finish her off."

A cold chill crept up my spine.

"And then of course I compelled the entire family to welcome you and take you in," he finished with a careless wave of his hand, as if it had been nothing.

A sense of resignation and understanding flooded my body. Of course he had compelled the family. The Sutherlands' easy acceptance of me into their home had rankled me, and I should have realized earlier that something was hugely amiss. How did a man of Winfield's stature let a stranger, a vagrant, into his home, and never ask anything about his family or acquaintances? A man of his kind of wealth had to be careful about whom he allowed to get close. And Mrs. Sutherland – she was such a cautious mother, yet she allowed me to escort her and her daughter on a walk in the park. Though this was hardly the time, I couldn't help but wonder if her seeming affection for me had been true, or if it all had been due to Damon's Power.

"What do you want, Damon?" I asked again. Here we were, back in the thick of it, but this time I understood just how dangerous my brother was and just how far he'd go to get revenge on me.

"Nothing terrible, Stefan!" he said, grinning and stepping back, throwing his hands in the air. "But think of it! Me with Lydia wrapped around my finger. You with the adoring Bridget…. We'll marry the sisters and, just as you always hoped, we'll be brothers again for eternity – or at least as long as they live."

"I'm not marrying Bridget," I blurted out.

"Yes, you are," Damon said.

"No, I'm not," I repeated. "I'm leaving New York. Tonight."

"You are staying here and marrying Bridget," Damon said, coming to within an inch of my face, "or I will start to kill all the people in this place, one by one."

He was deadly serious, all traces of cavalier, joking, devil-may-care Damon gone. The smoldering anger was back.

"You can't do that," I growled. "Even you aren't strong enough to take down an entire ballroom."

"Oh really?" He snapped his fingers over his shoulder. A maid appeared from the next room, as if waiting for his signal. She already had a kerchief tied around her neck from where he had fed on her previously. He gestured with his chin at the window, and she gamely went over and began to unbolt the latches.

"I can compel Bridget and her entire stupid entourage in there to go jump off a balcony," Damon growled.

"I don't believe you," I said as calmly as I could. Only Lexi seemed able to control more than one person at once. And Damon wasn't nearly as old as she.

"Or I can stalk them one by one and rip their throats out," he offered instead. "It makes no difference to me."

The maid stepped up onto the sill and began to climb onto the rail.

"Bastard," I murmured, rushing over to grab the poor girl before she killed herself. "Get out of here," I growled at her, unsure if I was compelling her or not. Suddenly she looked confused and scared, the spell broken. She bolted out of the room, sniffling.

"Why?" I demanded when she had gone. "Why do you want to marry Lydia? Why is it so important that I marry her sister?"

"If I have to live forever, I might as well do it in style," Damon said, shrugging. "I'm sick of living from person to person, meal to meal, having no place to call home. When I marry Lydia, I'll be rich. A houseful of servants to attend to my every whim… to feed my every need," he leered. I wasn't sure he was just talking about blood. "Or, I could just take the money and run. Either way, I'll be a lot better off than I am now. Winfield is swimming in money."

"Why involve me?" I asked, feeling weary. "Why not just go off and do whatever it is you need to do, ruining people's lives?"

"Let's just say I have my reasons." Damon flashed me a harlequin's grin.

I shook my head in exasperation. Just past the door of the study, a couple walked arm in arm through the library, in search of a quiet place to talk. Beyond them were the happy noises of the dancing throng, laughing conversations, the tap of heels on the floor. I watched distractedly, picking out Winfield's booming voice as he lectured someone on the basic tenets of capitalism.

"What will you do with them?" I asked. With Damon as son-in-law, Winfield Sutherland's life expectancy had just been drastically reduced – and Lydia's as well.

"Once I have their money? Pfff. I don't know," Damon said, throwing his hand up in the air. "I hear San Francisco is fairly exciting – or maybe I'll just go and take that grand tour in Europe you'd always dreamed of."

"Damon – " I began.

"Or I could just live here, like the king I do so want to be," he continued, cutting me off. "Enjoying myself…"

I had a horrible image of Damon satisfying his every carnal desire in the Sutherland household.

"I won't let you do this," I said urgently.

"Why do you care?" Damon asked. "I mean, it wasn't me tearing through New Orleans…. What was your body count toward the end there, brother?"

"I've changed," I pointed out, looking him in the eye.

"Yes, of course," he said. "Just like that. Whatever could have… oh!" He grinned. "It's Lydia, isn't it? Once again following in my footsteps, brother. Everything I have you just want. Like Katherine."

"I never loved Katherine. Not the way you did."

I was attracted to her, of course – who wouldn't have been? She was beautiful, charming, and a terrible flirt. Damon hadn't minded her dark side, and in fact seemed to appreciate it. But when I was with her under her heady spell, I just wanted to ignore her vampire side. And when the vervain cleared my thoughts I was repelled by what she was. All of my feelings, deep feelings, for her, had been the stuff of glamour. For Damon, it was all real.

"And I don't love Lydia," I said. "But that doesn't mean I want to see her – or anyone – hurt."

"Then you do exactly as I say, brother, and everyone will be fine. But if you step out of line, even once…" Damon dragged a finger across his throat. "Then their blood will be on your hands."

For a long moment, all was silent as Damon and I glared at each other. I had vowed to never harm a human again, to never allow a human to come to harm because of me. I was trapped as neatly and as permanently as if I were still a sideshow vampire at a circus, tied with vervain ropes – and Damon knew it.

I heaved a sigh. "What do you want me to do?"

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