Origins (Page 17)

"Actually, Katherine’s taken a shine to her. Which is too bad for her own horses." Damon smiled fondly as he jerked his chin to two coal- black mares in the corner. Indeed, they were stamping their feet and staring at the ground dejectedly, as if to express just how ignored and lonely they were.

"Y ou’ve been spending quite a bit of time with Katherine," I said finally. It was a statement, not a question. Of course he had been. Damon always had an ease around women. I knew he knew women, especially after his year in the Confederate army. He’d told me stories about some of the women he’d met in cities like Atlanta and Lexington that had made me blush. Did he know Katherine? "I have been," Damon said, swinging his leg over the back of his horse, Jake. He didn’t elaborate.

"Ready, boys?" Father called, his horse impatiently stamping its feet. I nodded and fell into stride behind Damon and Father as we headed to the Wickery Bridge, all the way on the other end of the property.

We crossed the bridge and continued on into the forest. I blinked in relief. The sunlight had been too bright. I much preferred the dark shadows of the trees. The woods were cool, with wet leaves covering the forest floor, even though there hadn’t been a rainstorm recently. The leaves were so thick, you could see only slight patches of blue sky, and occasionally I’d hear the rustle of a raccoon or badger in the underbrush. I tried not to think of the animal noises as coming from the beast that had attacked Rosalyn.

We continued riding into the forest until we reached the clearing. Father abruptly stopped and hitched his horse to a birch tree. I obediently hitched Mezzanotte to a tree and glanced around. The clearing was marked by a collection of rocks set up in a rough circle, above which the trees parted to provide a natural window to the sky. I hadn’t been there in ages, not since before Damon went away. When we were boys, we used to play illicit card games here with the other fellows in town. Everyone knew the clearing was the place boys came to gamble, girls came to gossip, and everyone came to spill their secrets. If Father really meant to keep our conversation quiet, he’d have been better off taking us to the tavern to talk.

"We’re in trouble," Father said without preamble, glancing up at the sky. I followed his gaze, expecting to see a fast-moving summer storm. Instead, the sky was spotless and blue. I found no solace in this beautiful day. I was still haunted by Rosalyn’s lifeless eyes.

"We’re not, Father," Damon said thickly. "Y ou know who’s in trouble? All of the soldiers fighting this godforsaken war for this cause you’ve made me try to believe in. The problem is the war and your incessant need to find conflict everywhere you turn." Damon angrily stomped his feet, reminding me so much of Mezzanotte that I stifled the urge to laugh.

"I will not have you talk back to me!" Father said, shaking his fist at Damon. I glanced back and forth at the two of them, as though I were watching a tennis match. Damon towered over Father’s sloping shoulders, and for the first time I realized that Father was getting old.

Damon put his hands on his hips. "Then talk. Let’s hear what you have to say."

I expected Father to shout, but instead he crossed to one of the rocks, his knees creaking as he bent to sit. "Y want to know why I left Italy?

ou I left it for you. For my future children. I knew I wanted my sons to grow and marry and have children on land I owned and land I loved. And I do love this land, and I will not watch it be destroyed by demons," Father said, flinging his hands wildly. I stepped back, and Mezzanotte whinnied a long, plaintive note. "Demons," he repeated, as if to prove his point.

"Demons?" Damon snorted. "More like big dogs. Don’t you see it’s talk like this that will make you lose everything? Y say you want a good life

ou for us, but you’re always deciding how we’ll live that life. Y made me go to war and made Stefan

ou get engaged, and now you’re making us believe your fairy tales," Damon yelled in frustration.

I glanced at Father guiltily. I didn’t want him to know I hadn’t loved Rosalyn. But Father didn’t look at me. He was too busy glowering at Damon.

"All I wanted was for my boys to have the best. I know what we’re facing, and I do not have time for your schoolboy arguments. I am not telling tales right now." Father glanced back at me, and I forced myself to look into his dark eyes. "Please understand. There are demons who walk among us. They existed in the old country, too. They walked the same earth, talked like humans. But they wouldn’t drink like humans."

"Well, if they don’t drink wine, that would be a blessing, wouldn’t it?" Damon asked sarcastically. blessing, wouldn’t it?" Damon asked sarcastically. I stiffened. I remembered all the times after Mother had died that Father would drink too much wine or whiskey, lock himself in the study, then mumble late into the night about ghosts or demons.

"Damon!" Father said, his voice even sharper than my brother’s. "I will ignore your impudence. But I will not have you ignore me. Listen to me, Stefan." Father turned toward me. "What you saw happen to your young Rosalyn wasn’t natural. It wasn’t one of Damon’s coyotes," Father said, practically spitting out the word. "It was un vampiro. They were in the old country, and now they’re here," Father said, screwing up his florid face. "And they are doing harm. They’re feeding on us. And we need to stop it."

"What do you mean?" I asked nervously, any trace of exhaustion or dizziness gone. All I felt was fear. I thought back to Rosalyn, but this time, instead of remembering her eyes, I remembered the blood on her throat, having flowed from the two precise circles on the side of her neck. I touched my own neck, feeling the pulse of blood beneath my skin. The rush below my fingers sped up as I felt my heart skip a beat. Could Father be … right?