Origins (Page 2)

"Y Rosalyn Cartwright." Father gave me one

es. of his rare smiles, with the corners of his lips turned so slightly upward, one would think he was sneering if one did not know him well. "Her father and I have been talking, and it seems the ideal union. She’s always been quite fond of you, Stefan."

"I don’t know if Rosalyn Cartwright and I are a match," I mumbled, feeling as though the cool walls of the stable were closing in on me. Of course Father and Mr. Cartwright had been talking. Mr. Cartwright owned the bank in town; if Father had an alliance with him, it would be easy to expand Veritas even further. And if they’d been talking, it was as good as done that Rosalyn and I were to be man and wife.

"Of course you don’t know, boy!" Father guffawed, slapping me on the back. He was in remarkably good spirits. My spirits, however, were sinking lower and lower with each word. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping this was all a bad dream. "No boy your age knows what’s good for him. That’s why you need to trust me. I’m arranging a dinner for next week to celebrate the two of you. In the meantime, pay her a call. Get to know her. Compliment her. Let her fall in love with you." Father finished, taking my hand and pressing a box inside my palm.

What about me? What if I don’t want her to fall in love with me? I wanted to say. But I didn’t. Instead, I shoved the box in my back pocket without glancing at its contents, then went back to attending to Mezzanotte, brushing her so hard, she snorted and stepped back in indignation.

"I’m glad we had this talk, son," Father said. I waited for him to notice that I’d barely said a word, to realize that it was absurd to ask me to marry a girl I hadn’t spoken to in years.

"Father?" I said, hoping he would say something to set me free from the fate he’d laid out for me. "I think October would be lovely for a wedding," my father said instead, letting the door bang shut behind him.

I clenched my jaw in frustration. I thought back to our childhood, when Rosalyn and I would find ourselves pushed to sit together at Saturday barbecues and church socials. But the forced socialization simply hadn’t worked, and as soon as we were old enough to choose our own playmates, Rosalyn and I went our separate ways. Our relationship was going to be just as it was when we were ten years younger–ignoring each other while dutifully making our parents happy. Except now, I realized grimly, we’d be bound together forever.

Chapter 2

The next afternoon, I found myself sitting on a stiff, low-backed velvet chair in the Cartwrights’ sitting room. Every time I shifted, trying to find a spot of comfort on the hard seat, I felt the gaze of Mrs. Cartwright, Rosalyn, and her maid fall upon me. It was as though I was the subject in a portrait at a museum or a character in a drawing room drama. The entire front room reminded me of a set for a play–it was hardly the type of place in which to relax. Or talk, for that matter. During the first fifteen minutes of my arrival, we’d haltingly discussed the weather, the new store in town, and the war.

After that, long pauses reigned, the only sound the hollow clacking of the maid’s knitting needles. I glanced at Rosalyn again, trying to find something about her person to compliment. She had a pert face with a dimple in her chin, and her earlobes were small and symmetrical. From the half centimeter of ankle I could see below the hem of her dress, it seemed she had delicate bone structure.

Just then a sharp pain shot up my leg. I let out a cry, then looked down at the floor, where a tiny, copper-colored dog about the size of a rat had embedded its pointed teeth in the skin of my ankle. "Oh, that’s Penny. Penny’s just saying hi, isn’t she?" Rosalyn cooed, scooping up the tiny animal into her arms. The dog stared at me, continuing to bare its teeth. I inched farther back in my seat.

"She’s, uh, very nice," I said, even though I didn’t understand the point of a dog that small. Dogs were supposed to be companions that could keep you company on a hunt, not ornaments to match the furniture.

"Isn’t she, though?" Rosalyn looked up in rapture. "She’s my very best friend, and I must say, I’m terrified of her going outside now, with all the reports of animal murders!"

"I’m telling you, Stefan, we’re so frightened!" Mrs. Cartwright jumped in, running her hands over the bodice of her navy dress. "I don’t understand this world. It’s simply not meant for us women to even go outside."

"I hope whatever it is doesn’t attack us. Sometimes I’m scared to step foot outdoors, even when it’s light," Rosalyn fretted, clutching Penny tightly to her chest. The dog yelped and jumped off her lap. "I’d die if anything happened to Penny."

"I’m sure she’ll be fine. After all, the attacks have been happening on farms, not in town," I said, halfheartedly trying to comfort her.

"Stefan?" Mrs. Cartwright asked in her shrill voice, the same one she affected when she used to chide Damon and me for whispering during church. Her face was pinched, and her expression looked like she had just sucked on a lemon. "Don’t you think Rosalyn looks especially beautiful today?"

"Oh, yes," I lied. Rosalyn was wearing a drab brown dress that matched her brownish blond hair. Loose ringlets fell about her skinny shoulders. Her outfit was a direct contrast to the parlor, which was decorated with oak furniture, brocade chairs, and dark-colored Oriental rugs that overlapped on the gleaming wood floor. In the far corner, over the marble mantel, a portrait of Mr. Cartwright stared down at me, a stern expression on his angular face. I glanced at him curiously. In contrast to his wife, who was overweight and red-faced, Mr. Cartwright was ghostly pale and skinny–and slightly dangerous-looking, like the vultures we’d seen circling around the battlefield last summer. Considering who her parents were, Rosalyn had actually turned out remarkably well.